Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Meet Robert Villanueva

Today I’m so excited to introduce you to a inspirational man who in his own words is “Living well with mental illness”. His name is Robert Villanueva, a National Trainer of Trainers for NAMI and the West Coast Regional Director of LETS (Lets Erase The Stigma). The first time I saw Robert was in a YouTube video for “In Our Own Voice”, where he shared some thoughtful questions about the stigma in society and how those living with mental illness are affected. He also gave a face of an adult who was living with Bipolar Disorder when at the time I didn’t know what that would look like other than images of famous people having public meltdowns. For me it was very encouraging and gave me so much hope for my son. 

Since that initial video, I’ve had the opportunity to hear Robert speak on behalf of NAMI at Stanford’s Annual Mood Disorders Education Day the last two years and this past year I met him in person. Today, Robert has graciously agreed to meet with us and share his story in a 2-part post. Today I’ll be asking questions about Robert’s story and later this week we’ll continue this interview with another post about the programs Robert is involved in and his journey to fight the stigma of mental illness. I like to think of Robert and others who are publicly fighting the stigma of mental illness as soldiers who are fighting for our children’s future! Thank you Robert for making a difference for families like mine and bringing hope to the next generation!

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Welcome Robert to my blog, I’m so excited to share your story and the role you’re taking in fighting the stigma of mental illness. To start, can you share a little about yourself?
I grew up in the East Bay and attended Castro Valley High School. Home was very ruff but I had some great teachers and coaches along the way. After graduating, going to college was a distant dream, due to unstable parents and the need to move forward in my life. I chose to coach wrestling and found a job as a garbage man... fast forward to my early to mid-twenties, as stated in the magazine “One in Four ” published in the UK, I would be considered an all American guy. Good husband, loving step-dad, coach, in great physical shape and all around friendly guy.

When did you first experience symptoms?
At the age of twenty-eight is when they started to disrupt my life. Looking back, I am sure I experienced bouts of depression and manic episodes. Being a father, husband, active member of society, the symptoms started affecting all aspects of my life. My family suffered the most during those years. I missed work, was not as loving and emotionally unavailable to my wife and kid.

What mental illness have you been diagnosed with?
I was originally diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of twenty eight. Later at the age of 31, while locked in a psychiatric unit, I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder.

How do you manage your illness?
I start every day with making my bed. There was a time in my life when I was in that bed 16 hours a day and didn’t see my friends or relatives for two months. My first step back to health was to make my bed, I knew that I was too lazy to make it again and get in the shower. Other days I was in such a hurry that I would start heading to the shower but then stop and tell myself “take the time to make your bed”! It sets the consistency on a daily basis that I need to remind myself how fortunate and blessed I am that I have a nice warm bed to come home to. Now I have seven pillows, shams and a Winnie-the-Pooh pillow that I have had since the day I left my family and lost my home.

Did you always know that something wasn’t right or did it come out of nowhere?
It was progressive but unnoticed by me. Later after the diagnoses, people came to me and said that they had suspected it for a while. My reality was going a thousand miles an hour or crashed like a log. It was the only life and reality I knew.

Do you have a family history of mental illness?
Great question! After I accepted my illness and became more educated, my family history showed a destructive blueprint of mental illness. At the time I did a study on my family history, I discovered that the longest a male survived through four generations was to the age of fifty-eight. At that time, the oldest male cousin was 42 and I was 33. My mom was diagnosed with Manic-Depression in the seventies and now we know it is Bipolar Disorder. Unfortunately she chose to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol.

As a man, what unique struggle did you face in coping with your illness and getting treatment?
I had no one to talk to, identify with, mentor me or even tell me where to get help. I am a very tuff guy, physically fit, hard worker, so the illness put me on my knees and weakened me physically, emotionally and took away the ability to support my family. The stigma and shame were the worse. I was experiencing clinical depression and lack of energy, not a girly-man sitting in the corner crying and feeling sad. (My horrible attempt at humor—hope I don’t offend anyone).

How do you get support today?
I start by making my bed. Support comes in many forms for me. Listening to close friends and mentors who give me help and feedback on decisions I make. Accepting the help and kindness of others. Being involved in the advocacy work on a daily bases. Doing this interview, flying over seas, being involved with great organizations such as www.lets.org our www.adversity2advocacy.org And recently I have been blessed by an amazing woman who agreed to be my loving wife :-).

Obviously you’ve gone public with your illness, but do you tell everyone?
No, but yes! Like any conversation, it depends on the depth or situation. I have found that how I disclose makes all the difference in the world. I use to say I have a brain disorder, chemical imbalance, suffer from Bipolar, or I am Bipolar. (I wouldn’t say I’m nail fungus if I had just been given meds for nail fungus) Now my standard smooth answer is “I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder ten years ago”. People don’t react like before, but become very interested in sharing stories of people that they know that have psychiatric illnesses. They see you as a healthy individual that is dealing with an illness, accepted it and is moving forward with their life. It’s really cool to take the power back from dropping the bomb!

Do you have any regrets with going public? 
I still have to appear on Oprah or the dreaded Doctor Phil to officially go public. Dr Oz would be great :-). I do not have a regret in the world about sharing my story. I don’t always do a great job or reach an audience the way I would like to. But my Grandma always said “do the right thing and God will know.” I feel I am doing the right thing for all of us and the next generation.

Have you yourself faced any challenges with the stigma of mental illness?
That is a big YES! I was ashamed that I was sick. I experienced the worst kind of stigma which is self-stigma. I limited my self worth, personal goals, friendships, romances, jobs and the list goes on. But it was seeing a women in our Peer Support group that was terrified to have her family find out that she was diagnosed with Bipolar that changed the way I now deal with stigma. She was crying, shivering, breaking down that she had to go back to work and that her co-workers may find out. The group consoled her and told her not to tell anybody. I couldn’t imagine this sweet person scared every day at work, every holiday. So I stood up and said “I will tell anybody because I don’t want to live in that fear and if we don’t tell our story, then we only perpetuate stigma!!!”

What have you learned through your journey?
The truth will set us free! Education is power to heal and move on! The kindness of others is the catalyst of recovery! The more I can help others, the healthier my life has become!!

What advice can you give parents who are raising kids with mental illness?
During my talks, that are very interactive with the audience, this is always the hardest question. I vividly remember a father, close to my same age, with tears welling up in his eyes, ask me “what can I do to keep my daughter from hurting herself?”. I replied “I don’t know, I wish I did”. That Sunday as the tears dropped down on my Bible during the music at service. I found an answer, not THE answer, but an answer, that kids and parents need to be educated, supported and involved before a crisis ever happens. So my answer is “get involved with the Lets Erase The Stigma educational foundation (lets.org)” and bring mental health education from the bottom up from our students, to parents, teachers, administrators, on up to the president himself. It is student run, all inclusive to the student body and it creates a sense of support, empowerment and community on campus in support of breaking down the walls that stigma builds.

Thank you again for giving me a platform to open much needed conversations about mental illness.

I wish you the best of health to you and your family.

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Check back for my next post as Robert shares about the organizations he’s involved with and how it can help our children!

Robert’s YouTube Video:

Photo Credit:
Adversity 2 Advocacy


  1. Thanks Mama Bear!- love your blog- thanks for all the information, interviews you provide. Helps us all!
    Thanks Robert- you are so brave and a wonderful example- you will make a difference in our children's lives by helping to erase the stigma and educate the public!

  2. Thank you E for the feedback, I agree that Robert is not only brave but a wonderful example!

  3. Great interview, Mama Bear! I remember hearing Robert at Stanford--he's very inspiring!

  4. Great interview, friend. Really helpful content.

  5. Thank you Nathan, I really appreciate you reading!

  6. Thanks for all the wonderful comments. It has been an honor to speak for those who feel they must keep silent...