Sunday 17 April 2016

The Power of Storytelling: Nicole's Experience

Nicole has written for Student Minds 'Power of Storytelling' campaign using her own experiences to share her story.

Hello everyone! My name is Nicole Campbell (aka @soupernic) and I am a mental health advocate from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in the United States. I am a public health student and my specialisation is Health Education and Promotion, so I can spread mental health awareness on a larger scale. I started my blog, Souper Mental, this year to write about my experiences living with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder, as well as mental health issues such as the impact of language that stigmatises mental illnesses.  I am also a public speaker for my local branch of a national mental health organization, have written for several mental health websites, and am one of the co-leaders for Team Not Ashamed-the #imnotashamed movement. ­I love pretty much anything mental health-related!

What inspired you to share your story?

To be honest, it was a combination of several things. I struggled with mental health stigma for many years because mental health is viewed as a taboo subject in many parts of the world. I thought there was something fundamentally wrong with me for a long time because I didn’t know that all the horrible symptoms I experienced (panic attacks that made me feel like I was dying, depressive episodes that essentially prevented me from functioning, etc.), were the result of treatable conditions. I’ve learned that being honest and transparent about my feelings with psychiatrists and therapists has helped me immensely and allowed me to start my recovery process. Losing the stigma helped me get better treatment. I want to tell my story to encourage people to open up because they shouldn’t have to bear the weight of stigma, and it will allow them to get the help they deserve. Secondly, I didn’t really have anyone who I could relate to and I wanted to be that for others by sharing my story. Furthermore, I found out after I told my family about my diagnoses that I had family members who also experienced mental illness but didn't talk about it. So, I wanted to break the cycle of being silenced by stigma.

Has telling your story helped you?

Absolutely! Every time I put my thoughts into words or speak to an audience, it’s cathartic and reinforces the fact that I’ve been on the right path for recovery. It has been amazing to look back at pieces or speeches I have written because they remind me of how much progress I have made. Telling my story is a form of therapy to me. It has allowed me to meet some amazing people and led me to great opportunities, including writing this post. What has been amazing is how much it has influenced my career choice. I want to become a mental health educator and plan programs for people of all ages to break down the barriers that get in the way of people telling their stories and receiving help. 

Has telling your story helped anyone else?

It has and that is the most amazing part of telling my story. I feel lucky that people read what I write and take in what I say during my speeches. People have written to me about how my story has touched their lives and how they can relate, which is surreal to me as a person who was previously frightened by the idea of people finding out about my struggles. It’s an honor to be that person who starts the conversation for others and I have been privileged enough to be the first person some people have opened up to about their mental health issues. The most important person who opened up to me was my stepdad. He previously wasn’t so understanding towards my struggles when I was younger, but because I am so vocal about my experiences, it gave him the courage to seek help for his severe anxiety and he apologised for not supporting me in the past. We will forever have a special bond because we both understand each others' experiences.

What did you find hardest about telling your story?

The hardest part was accepting that it’s okay to not be okay. Sometimes as a mental health advocate, I feel pressure to be “on” or seem like I’m completely recovered/happy. The fact of living with mental illness is that recovery is not a destination or a linear process, it’s a continuous journey. People respect you more when you’re transparent about your struggles than when to try to paint a perfect picture that’s not genuine. Opening up about how I have bad days helps other people (and me) accept that having a bad day doesn’t negate all the progress made so far. One of my favorite phrases is “It’s a bad day, not a bad life.” I will have bad days and not every post will be 100% positive, but I try to reflect that I still have hope no matter what life throws my way. 

Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking of sharing their story?

Don’t feel pressured to try to compete with other people’s stories. Your story is important and you have a unique perspective on life and mental health. I’m a recovering perfectionist, so I understand the desire to make your story seem “perfect”. Don’t let perfect get in the way of good because perfectionism can prevent you from getting your story out there and prevent you from helping someone. Also, if you’re worried about the ramifications of sharing your story (ie. if it will affect your job, relationships, etc.), you can create an anonymous blog. I know several people with twitter accounts and blogs that don’t display any personal info, but they are still able to openly express themselves. Lastly, sometimes you can help your story have a bigger impact by incorporating mental health statistics. Your story can make mental health issues feel more personal, and the statistics can help people see the bigger picture.

Why do you think it’s important for people to share their story?

Sharing your story gives you the ability to put your experiences out there. It’s a great way to reflect on what you have gone through and lose whatever stigmatising feelings you have. Everyone’s story is important. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate, so when people of different races, genders, cultures, etc. share their experiences, barriers are broken down. People are more likely to seek help if they see stories written by people like them who have gone through similar situations, and have been helped. I know hearing about people around my age and celebrities talk about their mental illnesses (such as Demi Lovato), helped make me less ashamed about my experiences. Everyone with mental health issues deserves to live without stigma and for every story shared, another battle against stigma is won.

Are you interested in getting involved in The Power Of Storytelling Blog series? Please dont hesitate to get in touch

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