By Carmen, ISM Director and Bre, UNF Active Minds Treasure and ISM volunteer
Becoming an advocate seemed to be the path to which I was destined. I grew up in a family of helpers. My grandmother was a teacher. My grandfather was a clinical psychologist. My dad was a fireman and my mother a nurse. One of my favorite stories is one my grandmother tells of her mother, my great grandmother, Emma Whitehead. They lived in a small town in Indiana near a train track and apparently the “word on the tracks” was my great grandmother’s house was a place the homeless could get a meal cooked for them. My grandmother remembers her mother would always ask how the travelers wanted their eggs.
I started volunteering as a teen. Sometimes I helped by choice and other times it felt like a sentence. Like when I was 14 and had to spend one week out of my summer vacay at a missionary training camp in Central Florida called H.E.A.R.T.. Campers lived in cabins with no air conditioning, used the bathroom in “squat pots” (holes in the ground) and took cold showers from buckets with holes punched in the bottom of them. Each morning we’d gather for breakfast, brush our teeth in a community wash basin and ride off into town to paint and roof people’s homes. It was super hot. There were more mosquitoes than in the Everglades. I ended up going back for 5 years in a row. (by choice)
It wasn’t until I got into college that I started considering myself an advocate and the personal & professional path I walked eventually led me to founding I Still Matter. Not only do we give people with mental illness a voice, but we also work to give advocates a place to do what they are passionate about!
I recently asked Bre Meeks, UNF Active Minds Treasurer and I Still Matter volunteer, why she became an advocate and here’s what she had to say.
Growing up I watched my mother suffer from a mental illness. She never took her medication, so things only got worse. When I was younger I used to wonder, “Why can’t my mom just stop being so crazy?” Over the years I gained a better understanding of mental health disorders, but it was not until I took some intense psychology courses that I gained a full perspective of what a mental illness is.
Through my education, I learned that a mental illness is no more of a choice than cancer or multiple sclerosis. People do not have control of mental illnesses and do not choose them. I got involved on my college campus with Active Minds Inc. to help raise awareness about mental illnesses, as well as educating the students a letting them know ways they too can get involved. I have also been involved with NAMI Jacksonville and I Still Matter (duh), and only see my involvement in the mental health community growing! In the end we all have the same ultimate goal: end the stigma associated with mental illnesses and ensure those that need help get treatment.
Through my advocacy, I heard stories similar to my own, so I sought out counseling on campus. Earlier this year, my counselor referred me to a psychiatrist and I was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.
While it was a hard thing to swallow, it has only made me stronger, and I now have more support than I could ever imagine. Upon sharing my diagnosis with my mother, I encouraged her to seek treatment and I am happy to report is now taking medication and receiving the help she needed after twenty years.
My goals with advocating are to spread awareness and educate people about what sign and symptoms to look for, because they could ultimately save someone’s life. The stigma and embarrassment that comes along with having a mental illness is not something people should be ashamed of; it does not make us weak, it makes us stronger!
To those that want to advocate, I would just say to reach out to those organizations whose goals align with what you are passionate about. To those that are struggling, do not be afraid to reach out! You are not alone and even if you feel like you have nowhere to turn, there are people out there for you, even though you may not realize it.