February 07, 2012

It takes courage for a person to talk about living with a mental illness.

That’s especially the case if you are a teenager.

Even more so when disclosure takes place in front of a television audience of millions on the hit show American Idol.

On Jan. 25, 17-year-old Shelby Tweten of Mankato, Minnesota “wowed” the American Idol judges in an audition that featured a video about her struggle with bipolar disorder.

Shelby has lived with depression since she was in fourth grade. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in March 2011. Singing, she believes, has helped her to persevere.

“I want to show people that bipolar disorder doesn’t define who you are,” she said. In doing so, she has struck a powerful blow against stigma and discrimination.

NAMI members cheered and applauded in their living rooms. For those who were watching with their parents or teenage children, it was an emotional moment.

The moment carried even greater emotion as Shelby sang “Temporary Home” by Carrie Underwood. The refrain can serve as a metaphor in the journey toward recovery:

This is my temporary home
It's not where I belong
Windows and rooms that I'm passin' through
This is just a stop, on the way to where I'm going
I'm not afraid because I know this is my
Temporary home.

Both the video and vocal performance can be seen on many websites, including Hollywood Life.

Talking publicly about your mental illness not only can help strike a blow against stigma, it can be part of recovery itself. It can liberate a person from feelings of stigma. It can stop a person from internalizing shame or fear. Besides being a step toward recovery taken for herself, Shelby’s audition serves as an example that can inspire others. That’s one of the principles on which NAMI’s public education program In Our Own Voice also rests.

So what happens next?

The audition judges selected Shelby to compete as a semi-finalist in Hollywood. Contestants will be eliminated until a winner is selected by the audience in the final episode in May.

I think NAMI members will know who they want to vote for.

Keep singing, Shelby.

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