About a month ago, as I was wrapping up a long week in the office, I received a call from Gayathri Ramprasad, the founder of ASHA International, who asked me for an endorsement of her upcoming book . Gayathri’s book is a memoir of her journey of living with clinical depression. As we talked, Gayathri told me about the recent death by suicide of an Indian boy in her local community and the intense stigma and shame of mental illness in her culture. She wanted me to be informed and told me she would be sending information so I could learn more about these issues.
To be perfectly honest, I was not listening. I heard Gayathri talking about the stigma of mental illness in India, but I was not listening well enough. I was not being present, and the words, ‘Yes, I know stigma and discrimination are a problem everywhere,’ floated through my mind. I wasn’t actively engaged in this part of the conversation because my focus in my work has been on discrimination in the United States, and sadly, international mental health has not been on my radar as much as it should have been.
It was an obvious sign that I needed to expand my capacity for listening when I received a tragic email the next morning from a friend who was asking for my help; her mother was missing. My dear friend Aditi worked for my mental health charity, the Flawless Foundation, for a few years and also worked as a nanny for my son. We consider Aditi to be a member of our family, yet we never knew that her mother has had serious schizophrenia for 17 years. Even with this close connection both personally and professionally, the shame in Aditi’s family and culture around mental illness prevented her from sharing this information with me. Fortunately, Aditi was able to reach out during this crisis and as a result I introduced her to Gayathri. Within minutes of this meeting, a powerful community was created to surround this beautiful family as they went through the arduous search process, eventual hospitalization and reentry to home for Aditi’s mother. Through their courageous ability to connect with us, we were able to help break the cycle of debilitating isolation that this family had been experiencing for years. The simple lesson here is that we can do something about mental illness if we open up conversations, connect and listen.
I share this example of my not really, truly listening because just this week, the National Alliance on Mental Illness in New York City launched a riveting awareness campaign called#IWillListen. People all over the country are posting videos and taking the pledge to listen to people who are living with mental illness. The brave video of Mike Thompson in which he talks about his brother’s death from suicide shook me to my core and immediately prompted me to join this important campaign.
This is all perfect timing as this week is Mental Illness Awareness Week. There are two actions that we can all take to create a more inclusive community for every human being:
#1 — On October 10, there will be a global web screening of the inspiring film, Hidden Pictures, a documentary about the underexposed world of global mental health. Please watch this film and spread the word!
#2 — Please join the #IWillListen campaign and take the pledge to listen.
I am Janine Francolini, and I will listen!
Follow Janine Francolini on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Flawlessgrats
Also published at HuffingtonPost