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The Book That Changed the Way I Saw My Mental Health

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I have long been fascinated and moved by the beauty and complexity of biology. All through school, I lapped up popular science books and TV documentaries like a starved cat confronted with a bowl of cream. I studied it at university; I loved it so much I did a PhD. And once I had recovered from the PhD, I went back to loving it again. For most of my life, the most emotional you would actually see me in public (most of the time) was when listening to science seminars — anything from quantum physics, molecules, natural history to astronomy. I’d get shivers down my spine and tears — actual tears — of awe.

Although I stopped wanting to do the routine science stuff that fits pieces into that picture, I have never stopped looking adoringly at it. So, when I’ve thought about my mental, psychological or emotional health in the past, I’ve very much focused on the biological explanations. I knew there were limitations, social aspects to consider, and that the brain is so complex we may never understand it fully. But it was always my focus. It felt comfortable, interesting and right. I think this was only partly because of my love of science. I think it was also because it made it easier to keep the focus mainly on me — my response to events, my faulty thinking, my difficulties coping and my personal vulnerabilities. This focus made things easier to manage and felt familiar — a kind of self-blame I was used to.

Over the years, I alternated between feeling like the most accomplished Vulcan in the universe who was fully disconnected from emotions, to experiencing utterly uncontrollable, overwhelming feelings that came from nowhere. And at both ends of the spectrum, it felt like my brain was somehow not like other people’s. Either people didn’t get the hurricane in my head or they seemed so vulnerable and needy compared to my ability to not let things faze me.

The disconnection was with myself, but with everyone else too. All around, counselors, psychologists and other people (especially other girls and women) seemed to speak a language I could understand but not speak. They talked of “processing,” “needing to express,” “bottling up or pushing down” feelings. They often wanted to talk about their feelings, even when there were no solutions to be gained or any new information to add by doing so. I always tried to listen when people needed me to, and hoped it helped, but I never fully understood what they were getting from it.

So, a biochemical explanation felt so right intuitively to me. It’s exactly how everything felt — like random wonky wrong chemistry. And then something changed for me. I read “The Compassionate Mind,” a book by Professor Paul Gilbert. It changed me by letting me start somewhere familiar. It started from what was a deceptively biological perspective – evolution. We are born more vulnerable and stay more vulnerable longer than most other mammals. Then follows a no-nonsense explanation of how the human brain works because of this vulnerability. It creates a physiological need for safeness, bonding and compassion that is firmly and biochemically embedded in our bodies and our minds and is as vital for survival as food, shelter or water.

I should confess, I bawled my eyes out through the whole book, and I got through it faster than any book I’ve ever read before. I think my brain had been lulled into feeling like it was on comfortable ground and then it got smacked in its little brain-face with something earth-shatteringly different. And something it couldn’t find a defense against. Suddenly, I didn’t have to understand the language of emotions to get it. I didn’t need “touchy-feely language” or to connect with the spiritual or the intangible in order to get what everyone else what talking about.

Not only did the book explain the need for tapping into our soothing system and the role of compassion for yourself and others; it was the first book I’d encountered that explained why I didn’t want to. In great detail, it explores the barriers people hold towards being compassionate towards themselves and helps them work through these (with a therapist if needed). It acknowledges the very real link some people develop between their soothing system and their threat system, usually through trauma caused by other people.

It explains why self-soothing becomes intricately tied to also feeling unsafe. Suddenly it made sense that some people develop self-harm or self-destruction as the only coping strategies they use for difficult feelings.

This book not only explains why this happens, but it helps us to learn what we can do to slowly shift this. In this regard, to me, the book was totally remarkable and life-changing. It gave me the understanding to commit to a very different therapeutic relationship and approach, which has been transformational for me.

Through this lens, my past approaches to therapy suddenly became really obviously deficient. I had continued to avoid my emotions by talking and engaging with an illness. This had given me validation for my pain, access to support and a level of understanding from others, but one which didn’t necessarily require me or anyone else having to stay present with my actual emotional needs. I talked about irrational thoughts and about symptoms and “doing something nice for myself.” I spent years trying to prop up my brain with drugs, challenging my inaccurate thoughts and trying to change my behaviors. It helped to some extent, but my brain hadn’t actually been experiencing anything physiologically different, despite all this.

None of these things were interacting with that soothing, bonding, safeness and contentment system I’d been reading about. I realized I needed an intervention my brain would understand and experience at a biochemical and physiological level that was fine-tuned to the systems evolution had created — ones created precisely to down-regulate the brain’s “things are going wrong” system. Pills thought to increase neurotransmitters throughout the brain (and body) or to reduce the activity of neurons may help (and may even be lifesaving) – but they did not, by themselves, give my brain anything new to work with.

What I had discovered was compassion focused therapy and its practices. No therapy has been able to change the way I feel like this has. And within the context of a safe, long-term therapeutic relationship, it has been more helpful to me than any other therapy I have tried over many years. It may even become the safe base I can use to access other more well-known therapies, but it was the missing piece in my puzzle — the part that explained why no matter how much cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or talking I did, I had never felt any different or related to myself differently.

This was the first step on a long journey of change, recovery, compassion and indeed more biology. But a very different kind of biology — one so intimately linked with the biology of my fellow human beings, one which is more about things we usually describe with the language of politics, sociology, injustice, trauma, crime and even spirituality, but is nonetheless a vital part of our human biology.

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Thinkstock photo via sodapix

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14 Mental Health Apps People Living With Mental Illnesses Recommend

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Nowadays you can track just about anything using your phone, including your mental health. Whether you take an antidepressant, see a therapist regularly or manage a mental illness on your own, tracking your mental health can provide valuable insight into your mental wellbeing.

We asked our mental health community which tracking apps they use and would recommend. Here are some of their favorites.

 

1. Stigma

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“Stigma! It’s awesome! You can journal about your moods, see a visual graph of your moods and you get to chat with penpals dealing with similar mental health issues!… The developer of Stigma is very involved with the community of users and loves to hear feedback about the app! He updates it with new features every couple of weeks. The newest feature is support groups. While I haven’t gotten to try them out yet, they sound great.” — Megan L.

Download Stigma for iOS (Android version coming soon).

2. Pacifica

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“Pacifica. Started just using free sections but I upgraded (£25 GPB for the year) and it has been one of the biggest factors in my recovery — the CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] thought exercises are really powerful as is all of the mood and health tracking and being able to link them and all of the relaxation tech. Money well spent.” — Catherine W.

“Pacifica is a lifesaver. It’s available on the iOS store. You can pay to get bonus features but I’m satisfied with the free version. I journal thoughts and it helps me identify negative thought patterns and set goals for whatever I do on a day-to-day basis.” — Hailee K.

“Pacifica. It has group chat and support; tracking for mood, thoughts, etc; mindfulness and meditation guiding; panic and de-escalation guides and pretty much everything. I think you do have to pay for full access but for free you still get access to tracking for sure.” — Bunny M.

Download Pacifica for iOS and Android.

3. Booster Buddy

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“Booster buddy! Because it says motivational things and has a coping skills library, has an emergency crisis plan, helps you with emergency contacts or 911 if needed, advises you of ways every day you can manage your mental illness, gives medication reminders, and lets you check in so you can see in a visual aid how you were doing on any certain day or a month view. Also, lets you track notes and events in a calendar. Plus, you get to choose a cute little character (mine is the raccoon) and dress it up with glasses and hats and stuff.” — Jennifer D.

Download Booster Buddy for iOS and Android.

4. DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach

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“I use the DBT app as it walks me through using my skills and coping techniques step by step when I am too distressed to remember how to use the skills! I can also share my mood logs with my therapist directly from the app via email.” — Kirstie O.

Download DBT Diary Card and Skills Coach for iOS.

5. In Flow

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“In Flow. It has so many great features — you can add photos to your journal entries, add friends on the app so you can keep up with how each other is doing (but you’re also allowed to make entries private so you don’t have to worry about everything being viewable), a mood tracking graph to get a more visual idea of how you’ve been, it ranks locations activities and people in order of which you were the most positive around and you can also set it to notify you to make an entry. The way it works is you start off with picking your energy level then emotional state — these are all represented why smiley, frowny faces and awake or tired eyes — you make the face that fits your feeling. Then you add a picture, if you want, and type in specifically how you’re feeling in that moment. After that you choose things in three separate categories: Where are you? Who are you with? What are you doing? And then you post it!” – Danielle L.

“My mom and I use this app together, it’s truly amazing and there are so many other great little features on there!” — Stephanie F.

Download In Flow for Android.

6. Daylio

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“I use Daylio, which is a mood tracker that I’ve been using for nearly a year now and love it.” — Natasha W.

“I use Daylio as it provides daily and weekly summaries of how my moods have altered through out the day, week, month, etc. It is solely a mood tracker though.” — Fallon G.

“I use Daylio. It tracks my moods as I record them, and is also a diary so I can track my days. And at the end of the month, it gives me a status report.” — Brandi G.

Download Daylio for iOS and Android.

 

7. CBT Thought Record Diary

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“CBT Thought Record Diary, it helps me to document my automated negative responses to situations and then challenges them with what is the truth. It has helped me so much to recognize when am I catastrophizing and telling myself lies.” — Truda W.

Download CBT Thought Record Diary for iOS and Android.

8. T2 Mood Tracker

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“I use T2 Mood Tracker. It’s easy to use. You can add notes, and [it] has the ability to export as a PDF (to share with a professional if need be). I have mine set up to send an alert to me three times a day to remind me to fill in how I’m feeling.” — Jess C.

Download T2 Mood Tracker for iOS and Android.

9. What’s Up

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“I really like What’s Up. It’s like a journaling app that can also track your mood. It’s super helpful when I’m out and having trouble coping” — Ally M.

Download What’s Up for iOS and Android.

10.  SAM

SAM app screengrab

“I use SAM. It is an anxiety tracker and it tracks the intensity and the physical effects it has on your body” — Maxwell L.

Download SAM for iOS and Android.

11. Wildflower

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“I’m a fan of Wildflower it lets you track mood and heart rate as well as having little meditation videos!” — Izzy D.

Download Wildflower for iOS and Android.

12. MindShift

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“MindShift is an app for anxiety that helps you deal with your anxiety rather than running away from it.” — Jienelise H.

Download MindShift for iOS and Android.

13. Patients Like Me

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“You can track all of your feelings and physical symptoms and you can do updates to show your doctor. You can also talk to other people who have the same issues you have and get updates on new medications.” — De C.

Download Patients Like Me for iOS.

14. iMood Journal

iMood Journal app screengrab

“iMood Journal. You can search your moods by keywords. So, I can find all the times I marked ‘crying’ or ‘grief.'” — Elizabeth M.

Download iMood Journal for iOS and Android.

Have a mental health tracking app you love? Let us know in the comments below.

14 Mental Health Apps People Living With Mental Illnesses Recommend
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5 Things Your Mental Health Provider Wants You to Know

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When we enter therapy or other mental health treatment, we don’t always know what to expect. As a mental health clinician and as a person who has also walked through her own mental health recovery, there are a number of things I (and I believe most mental health providers I know) wish the individuals we meet with knew. These are five of those things.

1. We Care About Your Well-Being and Healing

It might be tricky to think that a person who is paid to provide mental health care to you would also genuinely care about your well-being and healing. This said, myself and most providers I know do genuinely care. We are happy to see your accomplishments and saddened by your hurting. Many of us spent our own time and money seeking out training and resources that we hope will give us better tools to help you. We want you to reach your dreams.

2. Sometimes We Have to Make Tough Choices

If you are at risk to harm yourself or others, we may be ethically and legally obligated to take steps to ensure your safety and the safety of others such as helping you to hospital. Similarly, if specific facts are shared with us regarding children, we are often required to take steps to ensure their safety such as reaching out to Child Protective Services. We do not like to overstep your wishes and do not want to damage your trust.  This is just what we have to do.

3. We Don’t Think You Are “Crazy”

We understand that seeking help can be a scary step for people and appreciate the bravery it takes for you to do that. We also recognize that the things you share with us likely shame, worry, scare and/or anger you. That’s OK. Living with a mental health condition, surviving trauma, dealing with grief, and any number of other challenges that bring a person to therapy do not make that person “crazy.” I personally have yet to meet a “crazy” client.

4. Many of Us Have Been There

Although we are not likely to talk to you about our own journeys (therapy is your time), many of us entered the mental health field after fighting our own battles and wanting to help others. We may know first hand how it feels to have a panic attack or experience depression, or we have close family/friends who do. At the very least, most of us integrate the same wellness tools and skills we teach you into our own lives.

5. We Hope You Will Come to Your Appointments

We can’t help you if you aren’t here. In the same direction, if you do not feel therapy is helping or do not feel that we are helping you, we want to know that! It might be tempting to stop attending sessions to avoid the “break-up” style conversation that therapy just isn’t working. However, if you are able to attend and voice those concerns we may be able to address these or help you find a therapist who better gels with you.

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When Self-Care Is Followed by Self-Sabotage

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Most of the time I am completely amazing at self-care.

I pamper myself with multiple cups of coffee a day because without them I would likely lay down in the middle of the interstate and fall soundly asleep.

One of my dearest friends is a super talented hair stylist and she magically crafts my hair every few months, for which I am forever thankful because now my family and friends say things like, “Please don’t ever make your hair do that thing it used to do!” Meaning its natural curl and color. Like, the hair I was born with.

I allow alone time for myself away from the kids. For instance, right now I may or may not be hiding in my closet whilst writing this piece.

But then on the flip side, I am also really awesome at self-sabotage.

In some of my most depressive states, I will push my closest friends away. It seems ridiculous, right? Why would I resist those who love and care about me the most? They just want to be there for me, after all. It isn’t to hurt them, this I promise you. For me, it is because I don’t want them to see me sad. I can’t bear the idea of them seeing me unhappy, dark … absent. So, I silently disappear. 

But, this never works. My friends are a lot like me: persistent. So when texts are not answered and the calls ignored I see messages like, “Where are you? Why aren’t you answering me? I’m coming over!” But then I turn angry, hostile and over-critical. I say and do awful things in order to keep them away. This obviously creates hurt, which I absolutely never want. I never want to hurt anyone because of my hurt. This lengthy cycle comes to a pause with my apologizing and explaining and begging forgiveness.

But, self-sabotage never ends for me.  I move right on to something else. Now, because I am mad at myself for having done this to my friends, I starve myself. I am no longer worthy of food. This cycle goes on and on endlessly. I don’t particularly love admitting that I treat myself this way. In fact writing this here, now, is about as humiliating as admitting that my youngest child is 4 years old and I still can’t jump on a trampoline without peeing myself a little. (Struggle = real.)

 I am in treatment with a therapist who has a lot of fancy titles in front of and behind his name but still doesn’t make me call him doctor. Because he’s grounded like that. Regardless of his education and titles, he gets me on a human level. It is because of that, I believe, that I can look him (mostly) in the eyes and confess my self-sabotage cycle so he can evaluate which stage I am in. He is kind and safe. It is because of my treatment with him that I am able to talk about all of this with you today.

Obviously, my point in writing about this, in my closet, isn’t really to talk about self-care as you may have guessed. It’s about bringing less shame to self-sabotage. It is possibly presumptuous of me to guess that many of us associate shame with self-sabotage simply because for me there is massive amounts. Let’s just agree that my intentions are completely sound.

So, for those of you stuck in the circle of punishing yourself — I get it. Even though I know you don’t deserve the punishment you are handing yourself, I completely understand why you feel you do. I wish nothing but healthy paths for us all, and to never have to treat our minds and bodies in ugly ways ever again going forward. I want you to know that right now today, this moment, there is someone else out there sitting in her closet starving herself because she gets it. Truly, truly gets it. (Plot twist; It’s me.) 

You are never alone.  Not even when it feels like it.

Never.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.
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To Anyone Who's Gay, Mentally Ill and Coping With the Pulse Shooting Anniversary

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Below is a list of the names of the 49 victims of the Pulse Shooting so we never forget:

Stanley Almodovar III, 23 years old

Amanda L. Alvear, 25 years old

Oscar A. Aracena Montero, 26 years old

Rodolfo Ayala Ayala, 33 years old

Antonio Davon Brown, 29 years old

Darryl Roman Burt II, 29 years old

Angel Candelario-Padro, 28 years old

Juan Chavez Martinez, 25 years old

Luis Daniel Conde, 39 years old

Cory James Connell, 21 years old

Tevin Eugene Crosby, 25 years old

Deonka Deidra Drayton, 32 years old

Simón Adrian Carrillo Fernández, 31 years old

Leroy Valentin Fernandez, 25 years old

Mercedez Marisol Flores, 26 years old

Peter Ommy Gonzalez Cruz, 22 years old

Juan Ramon Guerrero, 22 years old

Paul Terrell Henry, 41 years old

Frank Hernandez, 27 years old

Miguel Angel Honorato, 30 years old

Javier Jorge Reyes, 40 years old

Jason Benjamin Josaphat, 19 years old

Eddie Jamoldroy Justice, 30 years old

Anthony Luis Laureano Disla, 25 years old

Christopher Andrew Leinonen, 32 years old

Alejandro Barrios Martinez, 21 years old

Brenda Marquez McCool, 49 years old

Gilberto R. Silva Menendez, 25 years old

Kimberly Jean Morris, 37 years old

Akyra Monet Murray, 18 years old

Luis Omar Ocasio Capo, 20 years old

Geraldo A. Ortiz Jimenez, 25 years old

Eric Ivan Ortiz-Rivera, 36 years old

Joel Rayon Paniagua, 32 years old

Jean Carlos Mendez Perez, 35 years old

Enrique L. Rios, Jr., 25 years old

Jean Carlos Nieves Rodríguez, 27 years old

Xavier Emmanuel Serrano-Rosado, 35 years old

Christopher Joseph Sanfeliz, 24 years old

Yilmary Rodríguez Solivan, 24 years old

Edward Sotomayor Jr., 34 years old

Shane Evan Tomlinson, 33 years old

Martin Benitez Torres, 33 years old

Jonathan A. Camuy Vega, 24 years old

Juan Pablo Rivera Velázquez, 37 years old

Luis Sergio Vielma, 22 years old

Franky Jimmy DeJesus Velázquez, 50 years old

Luis Daniel Wilson-Leon, 37 years old

When a hateful man took the lives of 49 men and women on June 12, 2016, I vomited for two days. I did not leave my home. I posted tearful pleas on social media for people to teach their children about love, empathy, tolerance and how not to hate those who are different. I screamed at the video recording on my phone, “We must be better. We must be different.”

I was simply “another gay person” affected by this slaying.

However, I happen to have rapid cycling bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. This event left me reeling. I became paranoid that if I ever left my home, my son would be left without a mother. I winced when my girlfriend held my hand because my heart beat so fast I thought it would break from my chest. I could not breathe. I could not sleep. There was no reprieve. I felt compelled to grieve for the 49 lives lost. My emotions were unchecked. 

I was angry at myself that I was alive, complaining about so-called “first world problems” and having suicidal thoughts when they had died for being who they are, for being who I am. I felt unrelenting guilt for my depression. I was alive, I was breathing and my heart was beating. How dare I be so ungrateful after what happened? My anxiety and fear felt like nothing compared to what they must have felt in their last moments.

However, one day, as I was in tears, my son came to me and said, in the wisdom of a 4-year-old, “Don’t be sad, Mommy. Be brave.” The Pulse victims, casualties and their first responders were brave. They were strong. I had a light bulb moment. It took time and medication changes, but I found courage in Pulse. A pulse is a heartbeat. My heart was beating. My guilt turned to action. It was OK to grieve in the same way it was OK to recover from mental illness. It was OK to hold my girlfriend’s hand. It was OK to go outside.

I may have confused fear with anxiety. I still could not tell you. If I let fear win, the opposition wins.

I am mentally ill and that’s OK.

I am gay and that’s OK.

Forty-nine people died and that will never be OK.

They will never win.

Love is a victory and I intend to celebrate it every day.

So, to anyone out there on the fringes like me, I can only offer the truth. The truth is, the atmosphere for the mentally ill and LGBTQIA community can feel dark. The truth is, we feel each other’s pain, because we are a worldwide family and their blood is our blood. The rainbow flag flies above our cause because of its fierce colors. It demands to be seen and heard. If you’re like me, be seen and be heard; in the doctor’s office, in the psychiatrist’s office or even simply at the grocery store. Never let anyone make you feel invisible, ignored or underserving in the medical community or in the human family. And if you ever feel alone, know that I am on the fringes right there with you.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741. Head here for a list of crisis centers around the world.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock image via nito100

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I Have a Mental Illness, but It Doesn't Make Me Incompetent

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I’ve been asked a couple times recently what I want people to know about me as someone living with mental illnesses. My answer almost every time I’m asked this question is the same.

I want people to know that I am competent.

Yes, I struggle with mental illnesses. Every day of my life I choose every action carefully in order to best accommodate my illnesses. I wake up every morning not knowing how hard that day’s fight is going to be, but still I wake up.

I like using the verb “fight” when I speak about my struggle with mental illness because is shows that it is work. It shows it is not easy. But fights can be won. It might not be easy, but it is possible.

So I wake up every morning to fight and I go about my life. My mental illnesses don’t control my whole life. I am still able to get my everyday activities and chores done.

I just finished my first year of college. During that time I lived alone in the dorms. I was responsible for getting myself to my own doctor appointments. I was responsible for taking my medications. I was responsible for my own meals and self-care. I was responsible for making sure I kept up on my coping skills so I wouldn’t down spiral. I was responsible for making sure I went to my classes and did my homework.

I was a peer educator and set up events to speak to students about depression and suicide. I completed a national peer educator certification. I was involved in Anchor Club, a club that provides support for and advocates for students on campus with disabilities. Next year I’m going to be the president of that club.

I don’t tell you all this to be like, “oh look what I can do.” I’m telling you all this to show I am still able to take care of myself. I tell you this to show you my mental illnesses don’t stop me from doing anything I put my mind to.

It doesn’t happen often, but there have been times I’ve felt people don’t take me seriously when they find out about my illnesses. At times, I avoid telling people who are higher up than me for fear they will no longer see me as competent.

I don’t want to do that. That’s the main reason I speak out as much as I do, because I want to do anything I can to break the stigma attached to mental illness.

So that’s my message today: Yes, I have mental illnesses and yes, I am just as competent as anyone’s else.

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Thinkstock photo via cyano66

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