Pooja Nagpal, 28, a peer recovery specialist at Riveredge Hospital in Forest Park, says that as a young adult she was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Major Depressive Disorder.

In April, the aspiring comic learned first hand how writing and performing jokes about the foibles of living with a mental illness can aid her as she pursues a life of ongoing recovery.

Recently Nagpal was one of five from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) mental health participants to take a multi-month stand up comedy training with David Granirer, the founder of Stand Up for Mental Health, and who this year was tapped to be the emcee at NAMI’s annual spring fundraiser, Nagpal says.

In breaking stigma, says Granirer, who is living with depression himself, “The idea is that laughing at our setbacks raises us above them. It makes people go from despair to hope, and hope is crucial to anyone struggling with adversity. Studies prove that hopeful people are more resilient and also tend to live longer, healthier lives,” he writes on his website, http://standupformentalhealth.com, where videos of him in action can be viewed.

At the event, in front of about 300 people, Nagpal joked that “When I got depressed, I lost 10 to 15 pounds. After all, when you’re depressed who needs Jenny Craig. Every time I need to lose weight I just watch ‘The Bachelor’ and trigger a major depression.”

So, on a cool spring day in Oak Park, Nagpal joined Jeffrey Shapiro, 34, a peer recovery specialist at Thrive Counseling Center who is living with schizophrenia, and Peter Briggs, 43, a mental health advocate living with bipolar I disorder to share their personal experiences dealing with the issue of stigma over a cup of joe. 

What is stigma to you? 

Briggs: For me, it hurts that people think you’re crazy, but if they don’t accept that you do have something going on, that’s almost harder.

Shapiro: I’ve come across some stigma in the past, including outright discrimination. There are all sorts of stereotypes of what schizophrenics, or what a mentally ill person, would be doing… such as that a person may become violent, may not be intelligent, and that those individuals belong in the hospital all the time. It’s just not true. 

Nagpal: Stigma is directly equated to harsh judgment on your personality, a lack of understanding, and even a lack of interest in understanding, because it is an easy way to say “you’re weird, get away.”

Give me an example. 

Briggs: When the mother of a girl I was seeing at the time heard the story about the gentleman (who was diagnosed as being bipolar) having a (psychotic break) on a plane, she said to her daughter “you have to stay away from him forever, he’s crazy and he’s going to hurt you.” It’s those people who jump to the conclusion that you are going to harm somebody that is hurtful, especially when you are doing all your best, taking your meds, going to meetings, seeing a therapist.

Shapiro: One of the stereotypes is that mental illness is equated with mental retardation, that people are less intelligent and less capable in functioning and fulfilling daily expectations in life or that there is no such thing as recovery. That’s not true because I feel like I’m a living example of someone who’s come a long way.

Nagpal: In general I have been told you don’t have to take medication to get better, get your act together, you know, it could be a lot worse…or what’s your deal, you’re a bright person let’s just get over this and move on. So, my experience has been mostly subtle forms of judgment.

Any all-around advice?

Briggs: As soon as you accept that you have a mental illness, you can become so much more empowered as a person. Accept that you take anti-depressants, and might need more sleep than the average person. I have learned not to judge anybody with or without mental illness. If you can have relationships where nobody is judging each other, then doors open up for you and relationships will get stronger.

Shapiro: The heart of stigma and discrimination, too, are that people aren’t educated about certain subjects so they assume something about that individual. My father has been incredible for me. He recognized that I have a sickness. He’s watched me go through the stages, and that’s what has helped me get to where I’m at now. 

Nagpal: My dad took one of NAMI’s Family-to-Family classes, and that changed our relationship, because after that he communicates with me differently. My goal one day is to be able to overcome my own fears and share that [diagnosis of major depression] with my extended Indian family. That is hard for me because that is a whole different culture and dynamic beast to tackle. But you know, baby steps. 

Ending the silence

In the health classes at Percy Julian Middle School, as well as Oak Park and River Forest, Fenwick and Trinity high schools, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) “Ending the Silence” programming is being taught, says Michelle Foskett, education coordinator at NAMI Metro Suburban.

It is a free, 50-minute educational presentation that teaches students about the signs and symptoms of mental illness and the importance of early detection and treatment. The class is co-presented by young adults who are trained to share the story of their own mental illness and recovery. The presentation’s message of empathy and hope encourages students to actively care for themselves and for their peers, whether by reaching out for help, encouraging a friend or family member to seek help or by reducing stigma. Contact with a positive role model, in the form of the young adult presenters, can powerfully change their views of a common but stigmatized life experience. The discussion portion gives students a rare opportunity to ask questions and learn personal truths about mental illness. The supplemental class is offered in health, science or psychology classes by local teachers.

Foskett adds that approximately 20 percent of youth ages 13 to 18 experience mental illness in any given year. About 50 percent of adults with mental illness reported that symptoms began by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.

In real terms, at NAMI we believe the number one reason people living with a mental illness don’t get help is stigma, and we hope that this programming can help to address that in teens by exposing them to education about mental illness, and the resources that are available to help,” she says.

Read the full ‘Stigma Busting: Shedding light on mental health’ PDF

Join the discussion on social media!

Deb Quantock McCarey

Deb Quantock McCarey is an Illinois Press Association (IPA) award-winning freelance writer who has worked with Wednesday Journal Inc. since 1995, writing features and special sections for all its publications....