Fighting the stigma of mental illness, one brave story at a time

Emily Hill of Philadelphia (left) cries as she is hugged by Jhas Williams-Wood during a rehearsal for “This Is My Brave.”

Elise Seyfried, who never cared for shopping, suddenly started spending four days a week at the mall and binge-buying dozens $200-a-pop high heels.

It was like a flipped switch. The 40-something “good girl” was putting on too much makeup, wearing skimpy clothes, and reading only fashion magazines. Then she started cursing — a lot, for this church-going mother of five. Seyfried was go-go-go, writing a 50,000-word novel in eight — mostly sleepless — days and nights. That is when she wasn’t crying inconsolably, for no apparent reason.

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Co-producers Elise Seyfried of Oreland and Bill Holmes of Blackwood during rehearsal.

In hindsight, her bizarre behaviors were classic manic-depressive symptoms. But at the time, when a friend suggested she seek help and offered the name of a therapist, Seyfried was furious. “I got up in a huff and walked out,” said the Oreland, Montgomery County, woman, now 61 and taking medication to treat bipolar disorder. On June 10, she and 14 others will share their mental-health struggles in a 90-minute production called This Is My Brave — The Show.

“I’m a storyteller, and I believe in the power of the personal story, almost more than anything else you can say,” said Seyfried, who writes and speaks about her illness. “In the realm of mental health, where it’s such a taboo subject still, it’s really important for people to be brave enough to stand up, identify themselves, and talk about their illness.”

This Is My Brave, which is making its Philadelphia debut at the Painted Bride in Old City, sold out of its first performance in 2014 in Arlington, Va.,  and this year has planned 20 shows around the United States and beyond, a record, said Jennifer Marshall, co-founder and executive director of the international organization.

“That’s our number-one goal, to be in every city,” she said, “because mental illness touches all of us whether we realize it or not.” The 39-year-old mother was diagnosed as bipolar and hospitalized four times. She began blogging, anonymously at first, then putting her name to her words. The flood of reaction led to This Is My Brave.

The toll of stigma

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five U.S. adults — 43.8 million people — experience mental illness in a given year. About 18 percent of adults face an anxiety disorder. Bipolar disorder affects 2.6 percent of adults.

Stigma and isolation can prevent sufferers from seeking treatment, mental-health experts say.

“These are often family secrets,” said Michael J. Vergare, chairman of psychiatry and human behavior at Thomas Jefferson University. This Is My Brave “is tapping into how hard it is when you keep something within yourself and can’t share. This is a way for someone to acknowledge an illness they have but at the same time show the recovery.”

Although going public isn’t for everyone, and cast members sometimes drop out, most participants “are craving this platform,” Marshall said.

A pilot study suggests that This Is My Brave holds promise as a stigma-reduction program. Through pre- and post-surveys of 372 audience members, researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso found that attitudes about mental illness shifted, with a “decrease in stigma, improvements in beliefs about recovery and empowerment, and greater willingness to seek treatment,” according to an article published in Community Mental Health Journal this year. A randomized, controlled trial is in the works.

“It’s normalizing the conversation,” Marshall said.

‘Thank you, depression’

Bill Holmes, 48, of Blackwood, Camden County, is a therapist who battles  depression and suicidal thoughts. He also is Seyfried’s co-producer for the show.

He will read a thank-you letter to his depression that says, in part: “Without the tests and messes you’ve brought into our lives, we wouldn’t have the opportunity to share our testimonies, to find strength and courage in the midst of weaknesses and fear.”

Camera icon ELIZABETH ROBERTSON / Staff Photographer
Kate Conroy of Pitman, at the rehearsal.

At the first rehearsal, cast members gathered in a circle at Christ’s Lutheran Church in Oreland, where Seyfried is spiritual formation director. They include a pre-school teacher who picks at her skin because of anxiety, a 9/11 first-responder with PTSD who turned to heroin, and a radio personality living with bipolar disorder. They are young and old, men and women, city-dwellers and suburbanites, straight and gay, black and white and Asian — a jumble of strangers who looked awkwardly at each other.

One by one, each volunteered to share.

“Remember the year that everyone was bipolar?” asked Jhas Williams-Wood, one half of the “Petch and Jhas” morning show on WAFL 97.7 FM.

For many of her friends, she said, “bipolar” was a figure of speech, used when sappy music made you cry.

For Williams-Wood, the word was all too real. “It’s not a figure of speech when you literally cannot bring yourself to get out of bed, or shower, or even eat. But now at 27 years old, 17 years after I first felt the confusion, not knowing what I was feeling, and only five from getting a confirmed diagnosis,” she said loud and clear, “I have given myself permission to live as a bipolar woman.”

One man spoke of a suicide attempt, thwarted when an old friend whom he had not spoken to in years happened to call. Another, a former medical student, described the time he did not sleep for days, and in a manic state, attempted an armed robbery and went to prison.

Emily McKinley Hill, 27, an actress from Port Richmond, told her story through a powerful poem. “My therapist has Anxiety/Oh great I thought at first/How can I get fixed by you/If your brain is defective too?” she read.

Hill said the rehearsal was tough for her. “Being in a room full of people who all have mental-health struggles can feel very supportive,” she said, “but it can also be overwhelming.”

There were tears. And hugs. And encouragement.

“A couple of the stories are funny and some are not,” Seyfried said, “but they all end on a very strong note of hope.”

Like her own.

After eventually getting help, Seyfried first shared her story in her church newsletter. “People were amazing,” she said. “I’ll never forget how the church was there for me.” She started a support group for congregants with children facing mental illness, then an awareness event for the public.

Seyfried still jam packs her days. “I don’t know if that’s part of my illness or not.” Still, she no longer swings from the highest highs to the lowest lows, and checks in with her therapist only twice a year.

“I consider that a victory,” she said. “Sometimes you feel when you’re in the throes of this horrible thing, your life is ruined and there’s no coming back. But there is.”

The performance will be at 4 p.m. June 10 at the Painted Bride. For ticket information, go to ThisIsMyBrave.org/events.

Contact Lini S. Kadaba at Lkadaba@gmail.com. Follow her at @exinkygal.