Stopping stigma

Scholarship honors students who are open about their mental health

People who struggle with mental health disorders often also struggle with stigma. This year, Gift of Voice – an Edwardsville-based technical assistance and mental health training center led by those in mental health recovery – kicked off its Disclosure Scholarship. Winners were announced last month. The scholarship awards students who have gone public with their mental health experiences in ways that promote dignity. Disclosure is one key to unlocking resources.

AJ French, CEO for Gift of Voice, is open about having attempted suicide multiple times in the past. "I myself am a person in recovery, and it was the disclosure of other people that helped me tremendously in my own journey."

French said she found support in her church and in mental health treatment. Often, as in her own case, recovery takes a mixture of various resources. The more the public is aware of ways to support those in need, the better. And often, hearing from others who have struggled is the most effective way to reach those still struggling, said French.

The new Disclosure Scholarship, which will be offered annually, is one step Gift of Voice is taking to make discourse around mental health a more common and celebrated occurrence. This year, an anonymous donor helped initiate the scholarship.

Morgan Rondinelli, 26, was one of two winners. She lives in Bloomington-Normal and is studying creative and professional writing. She is co-founder of Not Alone Notes, a nonprofit that mails handmade cards to people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and their caregivers. For several years, Rondinelli has written about her own experience with OCD on her blog, MyOCDVoice.com. Entries on the site include resources such as ways to find OCD specialists and ways to talk about the disorder with loved ones. The insights are personal. While people have different experiences, even when they have the same diagnosis, firsthand accounts are especially helpful, echoed Rondinelli.

And there is a benefit for Rondinelli as well when it comes to being open about her experiences. "It reduces internalized shame and stigma too, because it' s easy to be like, 'Oh well, I don' t care what other people think,' but we can still judge ourselves."

When she was a student at University of Michigan, Rondinelli helped facilitate a show called the Mental Health Monologues. "They were terrified," Rondinelli said about the students who shared their own experiences on stage. "But after they were done you could just see the look of relief on their faces and how proud they were," she said. "That really showed me the power of speaking out."

Traci Carrano Jones is the other scholarship winner. She is a Chicago School of Professional Psychology student. "Not disclosing keeps us shackled and stagnant in life. It holds us to that stigma that society places upon us," she said. Carrano Jones is open about her post-traumatic stress disorder. "I saw opportunities by sharing my own lived experiences to help others navigate their struggles," she said.

After the loss of an infant daughter and later her husband, Carrano Jones said a love of animals helped her and her surviving daughter cope with the mental anguish. She started the nonprofit Rise Phoenix Rise, Inc., based in Colorado. It also has a focus on peer recovery, where those seeking support learn from others who have been through treatment.

Peer recovery grants

In September, the Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health announced an $8 million grant meant to enhance career pathways for those in recovery from mental or substance use disorders. Through the grant, the state will contract with higher education institutions to develop programs for peer recovery credentials.

The grants will be awarded to Illinois colleges and universities to go toward developing curricula that meets training standards as set by the Illinois Certification Board Peer Recovery Support Training Program Accreditation Standards, according to a news release. The deadline to apply is Oct. 18 at noon. The link tinyurl.com/t3fknyz3 contains more information about the grant and how to apply.

French said there are many paths to recovery, and those who gain credentials in peer support are trained on how to share their own experiences in ways that can best help others. "It gives so much hope and so much encouragement for people to know that they're not alone in their own journey," she said.

Contact Rachel Otwell at rotwell@illinoistimes.com.

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