Thursday, December 15, 2011

Fighting the Stigma of Mental Illness

(Above: Lets Erase the Stigma Video)

Robert Villanueva
Today is Part 2 of my interview with Robert Villanueva. In my last post, Meet Robert VillanuevaRobert shared about his personal experience of “living well with bipolar disorder”, today he shares with us the organizations he’s involved in to help fight the stigma of mental illness. I can’t be more thankful of Robert and advocates like him who bravely put a face to mental illness, who stand up for those who aren’t able to and for fighting to make a change that will help all of our children. If you haven’t already, check out the links below and see for yourself the organizations that are working to make a difference!

Can you tell us about the organizations you are involved with and what your role is?
First let me start by saying I really like your comment “fighting the stigma of mental illness” because it really is a fight across the globe. Many strategies have been used and unfortunately we have been losing those battles. People like you and I are going to make a difference in winning the war against the stigma of mental illness. So let me share some information about the organizations I work with.


National Alliance on Mental Illness:
I am currently a national Trainer of Trainers for their “In Our Own Voice” program. IOOV is a public education presentation that is interactive with its audience, presented by two consumers/people diagnosed with a severe mental illness along with a 15 minute video. I was fortunate enough to be asked to be filmed for the video that is shown across the nation. Sometimes it can be intimidating to see myself on a huge screen with a big ol’ head. (LOL!) I also get the opportunity to represent NAMI in the greater Bay Area as a public speaker for events such as Stanford Education Days and other mental health events at universities.


Let’s Erase The Stigma, An Educational Foundation:
For the last year I have been on the ground floor of a new non-profit based out of Southern California that reaches out to the student population opening up discussions about erasing the stigma of mental illness. My role in this process has been to help create infrastructure, policy, guidelines and strategies to further the vision of being proactive in education of mental illness. I have found a real passion in seeing the student population embrace the idea of having LETS clubs on their campus. My current title is LETS Assistant Research Director. This position has included development and implement pilot research data.


Adversity 2 Advocacy:
I currently sit on the Board of Directors for A2A. The vision of A2A is “the empowering process of turning one’s adversity into advocacy on behalf of others facing similar challenges”. My challenge of living with the diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder is showcased on the main website. The stories talk about individuals that hit a stage of recovery and are able to advocate for others to help them reach a state of recovery. Part of this process has been being on the team of creative people from a diversity of sectors that have a heart for individuals and families struggling with adversities. The founder, Jeff Bell, is a friend, colleague and inspiration to myself and others at A2A.

What made you decide to go public with your mental illness and focus on fighting the stigma?
The actual moment I decided to go public and share my story was at a peer support group. It was an epiphany when I saw a women crying, shaking and terrified that their co-workers and family may find out she was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I noticed others in the room consoling her and telling her not to tell anyone because they wouldn’t understand. At that moment I realized that if we were ashamed of having a disorder, then how can we expect others to understand or accept us. I didn’t want to live in a world where I had to be ashamed of having a “physical illness”, “brain disorder” or “chemical imbalance”. I couldn’t imagine the stress of keeping that secret every time I went to work, saw my family or hung out with friends. So my solution was to let people know out right if the subject came up that I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder 10 years ago. It takes the pressure off me and in most cases opens up dialogue with others about mental illness.

How long have you been working as an advocate for mental health? 
It’s hard to believe, but I have been an advocate for about 8 years now. It started by talking to others in peer support groups and eventually becoming a facilitator of peer support groups. I had the opportunity to become an IOOV Presenter and a year later was asked to become a California State Trainer for the IOOV program. Shortly after, the same year, I was invited to St. Louis to become a Trainer of State Trainers. It is really awesome to meet people from across the nation that have the same passion and goal of helping others by telling their own story. Along the road I have spoke at prestigious universities (Stanford, Cal, Temple) across the nation and abroad in the UK. I guess you can say that not “keeping my mouth shut” has helped me get stable, live in recovery and flourish in the advocacy work I do.

Can you tell us about the goals you have for the programs you’re involved in?
Currently I spend a lot of time, energy and brain power on LETS and A2A.

LETS is going to change the world one club at a time. We are working with an amazing team around the nation to take a new innovative approach to erase the stigma of mental illness. My role is to measure the outcomes of the clubs using pilot data that includes surveys, questions and demographics of the clubs. We are working towards funding further research, educational programs for students of all ages, and mentoring opportunities to LETS Club members.

We have neglected the needs of educating our children about the devastating effects of mental illness on individuals, families and the community at large. In a recent, not yet published study out of Cal Berkeley, we found that attitudes towards people living with a mental illness is reported 6% more negative than a decade ago. For the first time, we are reaching out to students and asking them “can you help us erase the stigma of mental illness?”. They have given us a new hope, tons of energy and a new avenue to break down the walls of stigma.

A2A is an online non-profit that is dedicated to showcasing the amazing stories of triumph and inspiration. The website features individuals that have lived with or are living with lung cancer, ALS, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and stroke. These individuals are a small example of advocates that want to help their peers achieve a good quality of life through service, education and cutting edge research. We know that when we help others, we are helping ourselves. A2A will connect people who have experienced full recovery to those who are currently experiencing an adversity, in the hope that we can then get them involved in advocacy and be an inspiration to others.

The number one question that I get is “how can you do what you do?”. My answer is “I have know idea”. Only by my faith, the kindness of others and the advocates that paved the roads ahead of me have I had the opportunities and adventures that I have had. And what amazing adventures I’ve had...

Thank you so much Robert for doing what you do, you truly are paving the road for the next generation and Moms like me thank you from the bottom of our hearts!

If you’d like to reach out to Robert with feedback or questions, leave your comments below, he’ll be checking back to read your responses and if he’s anything like me, he loves to read the comment section, so don’t be afraid to chime in ; )

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NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness

LETS: Let’s Erase The Stigma, An Educational Foundation

A2A: Adversity 2 Advocacy

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Uploaded on YouTube by on Jun 19, 2011

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