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What TV Star Kelsey Darragh Can Teach Us About Mental Health Advocacy

When I was diagnosed with mental illnesses back in 1996, I decided to keep it a secret from friends, family and colleagues. I had a significant amount of shame and did not want anyone to think less of me or that I could not do my job. In 200, I had a major breakdown and there was no keeping my secret, so I came out of the closet to family, friends and some colleagues. I felt I had no choice, but I was surprised at what sharing my story would do for me.

TV Star Speaking Out

Kelsey Darragh is a comedian, video producer, podcaster and now author. She is best known for her numerous videos at BuzzFeed where she rose to the role of development partner, and she currently is a cast member on the E! show “Dating: No Filter.” She recently came out of the closet about her mental illness and she was welcomed by her fans, who felt empowered to share their own stories. She now talks about how she moved from victim of mental illness to advocate. I can relate to how empowering this is.

Kelsey has been living with major depressive disorder (MDD), chronic pain and a panic disorder. Everyone saw her as this outgoing and energetic personality who took the entertainment industry by storm, but she was living a personal journey that was far from her on-camera persona.

Why I Kept the Secret

This is exactly how I was. I was living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), dissociative identity disorder (DID) and bipolar disorder. Very few in my outer and inner circle knew. I was a “high-functioning” professional who was climbing the professional ladder in nonprofit management. I felt if anyone knew about my illness, I would be sidelined due to stigma. I was helping people who were living with mental illness in my jobs and could not imagine I would also need help like that one day.

That day of needing help and asking for it finally came. I did not want to ask but I had no choice. I felt disempowered and that I would never come back up for air. As I was an overachiever, it did not take much time before I was approached about taking a leadership role with National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in my county. I was scared — how would someone as ill as me be able to once again be in leadership? I knew nothing about mental illness and how to be an advocate for the mentally ill. I struck out to learn as much as I could. I put one step in front of the other.

Coming Out of the Closet

It has now been nine years that I have worked to advocate for people living with mental illness — our community and myself. I now do a lot of public speaking, telling my story and educating the public about mental health literacy. I am disturbed by how much the public does not know about mental illness and those who live with it, but I am equally inspired that the community is willing to learn and to eradicate the stigma.

I am proud of Kelsey for her advocacy. This is the true road to recovery. Kelsey’s upcoming book, “Don’t F*cking Panic: The Sh*t They Don’t Tell You in Therapy About Anxiety Disorders, Panic Attacks & Depression is written with the idea of making mental health information accessible to those living with conditions and those who are wanting to learn more.

We Are Not Alone

Kelsey discovered she was not alone and that her fans were eager to hear from her the truth about what she was living with. She says about stigma: “What I think is wrong with our society is that we see people who deal with mental health struggles and consider them unmanageable, untamed, or unhinged and it’s just simply not true because I guarantee someone in your circle, in your quarantine pod, your best friend, or your group chat deals with something like this and is hiding.” She wants her fans to know that, even if you have a severe mental illness, you are still a vital contributor to society, and you should not be counted out.

Stigma Will Be the Death of Us

Stigma is deadly to society and limits the human potential of the mentally ill. Stigma affects employment, education, housing, health care and many other sectors. Kelsey has been impacted by stigma when, after she came out with her mental illness, others said, “There’s no way she can be that outgoing and that successful and actually struggle. I don’t believe her or that can’t be true.” I got this feedback as well.

Others said, “you are a successful professional, so you cannot possibly be sick. You should pray about it and pick yourself up and go on your way.” They did not understand, just like Kelsey’s naysayers. That is why our work to educate is so important. Without our work, others are being judged in their families and communities and are now suffering in secret and feel silenced to reach out for help. That is how I felt, and it is what kept me in the closet.

Keeping Others Around

Kelsey says her main reason for doing the advocacy work is to keep others around. I know where she is coming from. I know that if it was not for me listening to others’ stories and being able to relate to them, I am not sure I would be around today. The stories were of pain and suffering but also triumph and recovery. If they can do it, so can I. So, I am with Kelsey that all we want to do is give someone else hope to stay around.

Never Give up Hope That We Can End Stigma One Advocate at a Time

I encourage you to become an advocate — it is so empowering, liberating and life-giving. It was hard to share openly. I still get butterflies in my stomach that I will be judged negatively. I do my public speaking with trepidation, but I know it is for the greater good. I also am now a writer; telling my story in print has been enormously rewarding and I can reach so many more people. I am grateful to The Mighty for this platform to tell my story and share with others who are living with mental illness as I am. If you are not ready yet, that is OK. Tell in your own way. Start out sharing with a friend, in a group that is not mental health-related or to your family doctor. Tell in writing in your journal or write for The Mighty under a pen name. You can do this.

Never give up hope.

Image via YouTube

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