Using stories and song to dispel the stigma of mental illness

After Andrea Landry-Brown’s children became adults and left home, she plunged into a depression so deep it felt like a form of catatonia. Unable to muster the energy to get out of bed, let alone leave the house, at times she felt suicidal.

Yet when a psychiatrist told her she had bipolar disorder, she resisted the diagnosis.

“To me, the words ‘mental illness’ always meant people tied up in straitjackets,” she said. “I thought I’d have a sign stamped on my forehead that said ‘crazy.’”

The 50-year-old health-care consultant has since become so comfortable acknowledging her condition that she stood up and told the whole story in dramatic fashion to a group of strangers Saturday. Landry-Brown, 50, was one of eight people who came to a branch of the Howard County Public Library to use poetry, music or storytelling to communicate their experiences coping with mental illness.

They were auditioning for a show to be staged in Baltimore this spring by “This Is My Brave,” a Virginia-based nonprofit that aims to end the stigma surrounding mental health issues by “sharing personal stories of individuals who are living successful, full lives despite mental illness through poetry, essays and original music, on stage and in front of a live audience.”

The hopefuls, who ranged in age from 22 to 58, used their five minutes in front of a panel of judges to describe their struggles with a range of illnesses — anxiety, depression, anorexia, post-traumatic stress disorder — and how they’ve learned to thrive despite the conditions.

Four other men and women auditioned in Howard County on Thursday night, and eight more are scheduled to take part in auditions in Bel Air on Sunday, all of them hoping to be selected to participate in a May 12 show at Mount St. Joseph High School in Baltimore.

Biji James, an outpatient mental health counselor who lives in Sykesville, volunteers with “This Is My Brave” and served as a judge. She saw the auditions as a cathartic experience for the presenters and an uplifting one for the small audience.

“It was amazing to see these people come forward to tell their stories,” she said. “They all seemed empowered, and that’s great.

“I feel like they’re owning [their situations]. They’re not going to let mental illness define them. They’re going to be living their lives as fully as they possibly can, and that’s what we all try to do.”

Jennifer Marshall, a young mother and business executive from Ashburn, Va., got the idea for “This Is My Brave” after a series of traumatic experiences derailed what she has described as her own “seemingly perfect life.”

One weekend, with her husband away on business, she began experiencing bouts of unaccountable energy and hearing voices, and when he returned and took her to a doctor, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

Six years later, she began blogging about the situation but under a pseudonym. She feared professional repercussions and the judgment of others.

To her surprise, when she finally published an article about the subject under her own name, the feedback she received was overwhelmingly positive.

Acquaintances empathized, strangers shared similar tales and saluted her bravery, and Marshall saw this unexpected experience of community as a major step in her own healing process.

She hit on the idea of a theater show that would give others a chance to enjoy a similar triumph.

She and a partner raised $10,000 and used the funds to produce the first “This Is My Brave” show at the Spectrum Theater in Arlington, Va., for a sold-out crowd of 400 in May 2014.

Since then, more than 500 performers have shared their stories of coping successfully with mental illness in shows staged by volunteers in dozens of cities, including Boston, Denver, New York and Washington, D.C.

One such volunteer is Tara DeCapite, a former school counselor who lives in Howard County and who has struggled with depression and anxiety, mostly in secret.

DeCapite’s husband, Matt, and brother-in-law, Pete DeCapite, decided last year to take part in a 50-mile race and wanted to raise money for a cause.

Like Marshall, DeCapite recently had taken to blogging about her condition and was so overwhelmed by the positive feedback that she resolved to help others have a similar experience.

An online search turned up “This Is My Brave.” DeCapite poured the $6,000 the two men raised into producing the May show.

She and Pete DeCapite, a Harford County accountant, oversaw the Thursday and Saturday auditions and are preparing for Sunday’s at 1 p.m. in Bel Air.

Aspiring contestants submitted applications indicating the nature of their mental health struggle, describing how they’ve coped and proposing an act.

One man presented a combined comedy-and-musical act on Thursday, Tara DeCapite said, but most so far have chosen essay-style presentations.

Organizers emphasize acts that describe positive outcomes and presenters who come across as engaging as well as fully prepared to share their experiences, including on the “This Is My Brave” website.

“Even if people are describing the painful elements – and some might even talk about having had suicidal thoughts — we don’t want them to tell their story unless there’s hope,” DeCapite said. “People want to hear ‘I’m not alone,’ ‘I can see the light,’ ‘I can lead a very full life.’”

Landry-Brown certainly has. Since receiving her diagnosis, she earned both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. In addition to embracing a regimen of helpful medications, she learned to choose from an array of helpful coping mechanisms: singing, dancing, praying, baking and serving as a volunteer educator with a grassroots mental-health alliance.

Her audition opened with a poem intended to communicate “what bipolar looked like” to her — “I am fun when you need me and hell when you don’t,” she said — and concluded with a rendition of some of her accomplishments.

She’s hopeful she’ll be chosen for the show in May, if only because she believes telling her story will offer encouragement to someone who might be suffering in silence with mental illness, either ashamed to admit they have it or fearful it will define their futures.

“People need to understand something,” she said. “There are mentally ill people everywhere. But that’s not all they are. They’re human beings like everyone else. I want to encourage them to begin learning and using their wellness tools.

“It’s OK to have a mental illness.”

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