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‘The upside of openness’

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Julie Headshot relaxed

This week’s post is by Julie Hersh, the president of the Texas-based Hersh Foundation. Her memoir about her experience is being published this month in Spanish as “Decidi Vivir.” She shares her personal top 10 list of ways to stay well here.

One rarely hears “mental illness” without the word “stigma” in close proximity. We read about tragic stories of lives lost because people failed to seek treatment because of fears they might be ostracized, lose jobs or friends. Although the possibility of rejection does lurk with each naked statement about mental illness, my experience has been that my openness has accumulated a handful of bad encounters and thousands of good ones.

If we want more people to be open about their illnesses, we have to do a better job of explaining the upside of openness.

“Struck by Living,” my personal story about my recovery from depression and suicide attempts, hit bookstores and Amazon in 2010. I had ECT (electroconvulsive therapy), a procedure that saved my life but never ceases to raise eyebrows.

Anticipating an onslaught of negativity both about ECT and my illness, my fears had caused me to abandon publication three years earlier. I envisioned fellow students rejecting my children, then in middle school; social engagements spurned; damage to my husband’s business; rejection from acquaintances.

Despite these fears, I changed names to protect family members and went to print. I knew I almost lost my life due to my ignorance about mental illness. If my book could inspire one person to live one more day and seek help, any personal inconvenience would be offset.

To my surprise, people not only accepted me, but opened their souls in an overwhelming way. People I had known for years told me about loved ones lost to suicide and their own struggles with depression or bipolar disorder. Complete strangers told me heartbreakingly personal stories about their loss or illness, certain that I was the only one who could understand them.

I assured them compassion existed within their current circle of friends. If they could be the first one to bridge the chasm of vulnerability, they’d find a support where they least expected it. Frequently these people called back, astonished by the discovery of a close friend or family member who had a similar experience.

Why be open? One of the most deadly elements of mental illness is isolation, and with openness comes intimacy and connection. Openness involves risk of rejection, but the payoff is big. With connection comes laughter, the ability to spread pain so thin that its weight becomes bearable.

Brene Brown eloquently describes the results of her research on vulnerability in her 2010 TED talk. She says people who were wholehearted, I would say resilient, fully embraced being vulnerable. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.

In a world where beauty is often defined by external perfection, we sometimes forget the stunning power of the human spirit. Instead of being disgraced by my story, the worst part of my life has opened me to world of inspiration through the stories of others. These stories fortify me. To find these stories, however, I had to be willing to risk mine.

For more between posts, follow @AboutSuicide.

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