Mental Illness Awareness Week 2011
I started teaching Movies & Madness in 2004. I was in need of a change. I had settled into a comfortable rhythm with little risk and few challenges. I had connections with the local mental health community through some collaborative research but I had never been an advocate of any sort. I really didn’t understand the issues. The research involved examining perceptions of various constitutent groups of access to the mental health system. The focus group session that stuck with me the most was with people with mental illnesses. The talked about their lives and their challenges and the constant presence of stigma. All the while, I was hiding my own story and I wasn’t ready to tell it. A seed was planted though. On a plane going to a teaching conference, I started sketching out a class. Once on the ground, I started researching, reading, learning. I reconnected with NAMI and developed assignments consistent with the Stigma Buster philosophy. I studied the academic research on mental illness stigma in which I had been tangentially involved back in graduate school. I decided to focus on film and television after being reminded that the top source of information about mental health for Americans is film and tv. That meant I had to learn something about media criticism. More new learning.
The class was successful from the start in terms of enrollment. Perhaps I’m being cynical but I think that the popularity of the course is due to the ignorance of the audience. I hope I haven’t offended anyone but students often come into the class thinking, “A class watching movies about crazy people? That will be awesome…and easy…and it counts for gen ed.” Then they fall for the bait and switch. Whether I convert them or not, they have to practice advocacy. And they do, often with tremendous energy.
I still wasn’t that open with most people about my own history of depressive illness. I certainly hadn’t been open with students. Hypocritical self-protection I suppose. I started giving talks about the class or about media messages around the area and I fell into my own bait and switch trap. I was now an advocate. I hadn’t planned on it but there it was. I got more involved in NAMI locally which has been a gift.
This year, our NAMI had an awareness and fundraising walk. One of the things we did was have signs participants could wear which said “family member”, “person in recovery”, “survivor”, “parent”, “ally” etc… When I got there, I needed to choose. I looked around the room. My kids and my husband, NAMI board members, the P2P Recovery people (heroes), NAMI families (also heroes), and a whole group of my students. I picked up “person in recovery”, put it on, and went back to fretting about details and the crappy weather. I looked up later. My husband and daughters had on signs saying “family member”. They’ve fallen into my trap as well. They don’t seem to mind. I was still worried about what my students were thinking when they read the words “person in recovery”. It doesn’t really matter. The closet door is open and won’t be closed again. I’m a person in revovery from mental illness but I’m a person first. I have lots of sides and some of them are even pleasant once you get beyond all the sarcasm. And I’m having a great time tricking people into becoming advocates.