By Jason Jepson
I live in an apartment complex in a busy part of my town. From my second-floor balcony, I can see my neighbors coming and going from their jobs, appointments, errands and other activities. While I have glimpses into their everyday lives, I don't really know any of my neighbors on a personal level. The extent of my interactions with my neighbors consists of the polite "Hello, how are you?" or "Have a nice day,"-type exchanges. Sometimes, I wonder what my neighbors notice about me.
I live a rather isolated life, except for occasional visits from my family. I look physically fit, well-groomed and reasonably healthy. While I am noticeably less social, my mental health condition is not outwardly detectable. I often wonder how my neighbors would react if they knew I have schizophrenia.
Most people know that mental illness impacts one’s thinking or behavior. However, due to the pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness, people may not know that mental health conditions can be treated (usually with a combination of medication and therapy) — and people living with mental illness can lead normal and joyful lives.
I have often thought about what I wish I could communicate to my neighbors. My illness greatly affects my life — just as any physical illness would — but schizophrenia does not define me. If I could tell my neighbors anything about myself, this is what I would share:
If my neighbors found out I have schizophrenia, I would want them to know that I am not a danger to them. I would want to explain that the negative portrayals of this condition in the media are misleading and sensationalized; I do not own a gun, I am not wildly unpredictable, and I am certainly not a serial killer, despite what crime dramas may suggest. In fact, research shows that I am more likely to be the victim of a crime than a perpetrator.
Ultimately, I understand that the label of my diagnosis can be intimidating for people who are unfamiliar with serious mental illness — but I hope to start a dialogue and explain my situation. I would be happy to share my daily experience, from my symptoms to the medications I take.
If my neighbors learned of my diagnosis, I would want them to see the complexities of me as a person. Firstly, that I am not a dangerous criminal— but more than that, I have a productive life as a writer and mental health advocate. I’ve learned and proven that words can be powerful, if used in the right way. I use my voice as an advocate to educate people about the lived experience of serious mental illness. And I am open to having difficult conversations; there is no question about my mental illness that I am afraid to answer, and if I don’t know, I do my best to find the answer.
My work goes beyond mental health advocacy. I would also like for my neighbors to know that I am an American patriot; I am a veteran having served my country in the U.S. Army. I love the fact that America is a country of diversity — and much of what makes us a great country is that we appreciate the unique contributions that come from all our citizens. And I have many contributions to offer.
While my life may look different from my neighbors’ lives, we have plenty of things in common. From my balcony, I can see some of my neighbors playing sports. I wish they knew that I have always enjoyed physical exercise. Specifically, I love to play basketball, and I would appreciate it if someone asked to play a game of pick-up basketball at the new court near our apartments. I also enjoy working out, and I would like to have a workout buddy when using the fitness center in our apartment complex. Not only is exercise a fun activity, but it also helps me manage my symptoms.
Ultimately, I wish my neighbors knew that I have the same emotional needs as anyone else. Although they might not see lots of people coming and going from my apartment, I want them to know that sometimes I like to have company — just someone to hang out with or watch a ballgame with. I have a large collection of vinyl records and would love to show off my jazz collection to them. I also like to cook and would enjoy cooking for other people, not just myself. Maybe a neighbor and I could cook together. The combination of a homemade dinner and good jazz sounds like a wonderful evening to me.
Those of us who have mental health diagnoses simply want to be seen for who we are and to feel understood when we experience mental health challenges. We are productive, well-intentioned people who make major contributions to our society every day. Since one in four people are affected by mental illness, it is safe to say that people in every rung of society struggle every day to fight the stigma that isolates us. I believe the solution exists in simply talking to those around us — to find the things we have in common.
I would jump at the opportunity to explore some of those commonalities with some of my neighbors.
Jason Jepson grew up in Virginia, but he now lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C., where he advocates for those who have received a diagnosis of severe mental illness. Jason was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army. He began his mental health advocacy with NAMI, where he received peer-to-peer certification, and he has since gone on to volunteer helping veterans who have mental health issues. Jason has written two books, and his first-person account of day-to-day life with schizophrenia has appeared in “Schizophrenia Bulletin,” an academic journal published by Oxford Press.
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