By Jinneh Dyson, Executive Director, NAMI Metropolitan Houston
My desire to help people overcome adversities stems from the agony that I felt when I lost my mother to cancer at the age of 14. I grew up in a small town in southeast Texas and was very active in my community, church and school. I was the “good” girl that made straight As, excelled in sports and was a leader among my peers. Striving to uphold this image, I learned early in life to mask my pain. I knew that if I was great in school and continued to excel in sports then no one would ask questions and no one would see my pain and hurt of growing up without my parents; as my father had not yet accepted his calling to fatherhood. To disguise the pain, I gave in to many of the struggles and low expectations and perceptions of self that surround many youth who are lacking parental guidance and support. I was diagnosed at 17 with major depression, but was told by close family members that all I needed to do was pray and move on. And pray I did! But the depression never lifted.
I went on to college and did what I knew how to do best. I got involved by joining several college organizations, started attending church and volunteered with youth organizations. However the dark clouds of depression took over my life and I felt the pain and pressure of trying to survive in a world in which I still felt different and ashamed to be me. I quickly went from an A to an F student and started to internalize and believe all of the negativity that I had ever received from those around me: I would never make it in school, I was not good enough and I was the reason for the absence of my father. I became severely depressed and isolated myself from my peers.
It was not until I was placed on academic probation and was informed that I had one more semester to improve my grades that I would be asked to leave the university and return home. Home—what was that? I had no home. For me, home is where the heart is and my heart was now in heaven. So if I was sent home, I would have nowhere to go, as everything I owned was in my dormitory. Reflecting back on that day now, I must admit, that it was the best day of my life because it motivated me to start living a life of purpose. It gave me a reason to regain hope, inspiration and the courage to overcome.
I sought treatment and built a strong and positive support network around me and as a result I received numerous awards and accolades for my academic and leadership endeavors; even one by Texas Governor Rick Perry at the Texas Conference for Women in 2003.
After graduating college, I knew that it was my passion and life calling to work with others that had been affected by mental illness. After many years working in the field, I realized that my voice and my story were needed in a different capacity. I was needed to advocate for others. In 2008 I started working as a director of education for a NAMI Oklahoma and soon after I was promoted to executive director, making me one of few African Americans in this leadership role and, being under 30, one of the youngest. After a recent move closer to my childhood home, I am now the executive director of NAMI Metropolitan Houston.
Although, I have overcome many hurdles in life, I believe that it is not the destination that matters, but it is the life lessons that I have learned along the way. My life is a testament to the fact that anyone can bloom where they are planted, despite life’s obstacles. I believe that I am only standing here today because of my personal quest to play the hand that was dealt to me and because of my willingness to allow my pain to give birth to my purpose. And I believe that we overcome challenges and obstacles in life not solely for ourselves, but so that we can be a beacon of light for others.
Jinneh's story originally appeared in Recovery For All, a Web section created by NAMI's Multicultural Action Center to offer timely information and updates on the activities, resource development and projects surrounding diverse cultural issues in mental health. To hear more about Jinneh’s story listen to her powerful speech given to students at Silsbee, Texas High School as keynote speaker for Black History Month on Feb. 24, 2012.