"Hi, I’m Mike, and I’m mentally ill."
Most people would probably find it impossible to introduce themselves this way. It’s blunt, honest, and unexpected, and for many people, that honesty, about who they are and the things that they struggle with, is very difficult to come by.
On Friday night, Holderness School hosted Mike Veny, one of America’s leading speakers on mental health. In 2017, Mike was awarded the PM360 ELITE Award, which recognizes the top 100 most influential people in the healthcare industry. His work tackles topics such as suicide prevention, mental health, and overall wellness while maintaining a tone that is geared towards progress and helping individuals understand and work with one another more effectively.
As a teenager, Mike was expelled from three schools, attempted suicide, and endured three stays in a psychiatric hospital. It seemed as if there was no solution to his uncontrollable anger and depression. Fortunately, Mike eventually discovered drumming helped him cope, and he learned to live with his illness.
Then after a serious bout of depression in 2011, Mike chose to use his love of drumming and public speaking to offer others empathy, encouragement, and a little bit of music. Since then, he has spoken all over the country at hundreds of schools and businesses, and in each place he is working to change the social stigma surrounding mental illness.
Each year Holderness focuses on one of four topics, arranging for speakers to visit campus and providing workshops that investigate the topics in depth in an effort to explore students’ perceptions of the world around them. Past themes have included “Race,” “Gender and Sexuality,” and “Privilege;” this year the focus is on “Ability, Disability, and Access.” Earlier in the year we hosted Kristen Cameron ’04 and KC Christiansen
, who both shared their personal stories about living with physical disabilities. On Friday, Mike Veny shed light on the often invisible disability that is mental illness.
Mike opened his talk at Holderness by saying, “When we’re talking about mental health in our society, we’re really talking about three things: Thoughts, feelings, and behavior. You can’t see someone's thoughts and you can't feel their feelings but you can observe their behavior. We’re also going to talk about stigma.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), 1 in 5 adults in America will experience some kind of mental illness in a given year. Of the 43.8 million people struggling with mental illness, 9.8 million of those people will experience a mental illness that “substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
Despite the fact that almost 20% of adults in America are living with some kind of mental illness, we don’t talk about it nearly as much as we should, and the consequences for our societal inaction are severe. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, and more than 90% of the children who die as a result of suicide each year have a mental health condition.
Mike talked about the stigma surrounding mental health, and shared with students what he sees as a three-part cycle: “It starts with shame. You feel ashamed about your issues or you love someone and feel ashamed about their issues. The shame leads to silence. You don’t talk about it. The silence leads to sabotage, social injustice, self-destructive behavior, and if you’re not careful, suicide. Listen again. Stigma starts with shame. Shame leads to silence and silence leads to sabotage, social injustice, self destructive behavior, and suicide.”
As an alternative, Mike explained, “The key to transforming shame is to figure out what the opposite of shame is. The opposite of shame is pride and honor.” We have to learn how to take pride in who we are and to not let social stigma and shame silence us. The first step in doing that, he said, is to start taking care of yourself: “When you take care of yourself, for some oddball reason, you feel better about yourself,” and it’s as easy (and as difficult) as that. We have to learn how to take care of ourselves, and as soon as we do the work to take care of own well being, we begin to open the doors for broader discussions surrounding mental health.
Mike then told us a story about a 6’5” German bodybuilder who lived above him in his apartment in New York. During a long conversation, the man eventually admitted to Mike that he had visited Mike’s mental health website and that he struggled with bipolar disorder. Despite his successful career and healthy lifestyle, he was struggling. It was only through talking about their illnesses that the two men started to feel better. Mike’s message to us was to talk about it. “It’s okay,” he said. “There’s no right or wrong way to do it.”
Mike also told us what to do if we have a friend or someone we love who is struggling with mental health issues, and those instructions were really simple. One, take it seriously. Don’t underestimate the pain someone might be in, even if you think they might just be joking. And two, don’t give advice. Instead, try saying, “Help me understand.” And then, he said, make sure you shut up right after that. Help me understand. How can I support you?
In closing, Mike said to remember this: “Stigma starts with shame, shame leads to silence, silence leads to sabotage, social injustice, self destructive behavior, and suicide. The key to transforming shame, silence, and sabotage is taking ownership of your life and taking pride in your mental health. By doing that we unlock a conversation centered around well being that will echo around the world and change the lives of everyone around us.”
After Mike’s closing remarks, Director of Equity and Inclusion Jini Sparkman ended the evening with a promise. She promised the school that Mike’s presentation is just the start of a conversation. Last year we as a community began the conversation when we raised funds for mental health charities and spoke about various mental health issues. Ms. Sparkman wants to make sure this conversation continues. “This is only the start of our work,” she said. “Mike’s talk is just one part of the work that we’re doing here. It’s a part of all of us.”