Sharing struggles, breaking stigmas: Live storytelling shines spotlight on mental health

April 3, 2019

Courtesy This Is My Brave

November 29, 2020 | A live show that shares struggles to break stigmas (WTOP's Rachel Nania )

Thirteen years ago, Jennifer Marshall was diagnosed with Type 1 bipolar disorder — a discovery so serious, she didn’t know if she’d be able to work again. But with the support of doctors and family, Marshall “got through her struggle.”

Then, she wanted to talk about it.

“The first thing I did was I turned to the internet to find stories of other people who had made it through because I wanted to know I wasn’t alone,” said Marshall, a mother of two who lives in Northern Virginia.

It was personal accounts from others that inspired Marshall to share her own story on a blog she titled, “Bipolar Mom Life.”

“I just felt if one person could be helped by reading my story, it would be worth it.”

For 18 months she wrote anonymously, out of fear of social and professional discrimination. Then, when an editor from the website What To Expect approached Marshall and asked her to contribute content, she decided to add her byline. Marshall’s first piece was published on the homepage of AOL, and reader feedback instantly flooded her inbox.

“It wasn’t people turning away from me — it was nothing like that. It was all-encompassing love and support,” Marshall said.

Three years after her diagnosis, Marshall decided to give others an opportunity to share their stories and struggles with mental illness. Alongside her friend Anne Marie Ames, Marshall launched This Is My Brave — a nonprofit organization that provides a platform for individuals to share their experiences with mental health issues and addiction live, on stage, through a variety of media, including poetry, comedy, essays and more.

“Storytelling gives people an opportunity to really own their story,” Marshall said.

“They are writing through what they experienced, and it really gives them the opportunity to reflect and to turn it into a way for others to learn. And they grow through the process of crafting their piece when they come to us for an audition to be in a show, so it’s a neat process.”

Jennifer Marshall is the founder and executive director of This Is My Brave. (Courtesy This Is My Brave)

Since 2014, This Is My Brave has featured nearly 700 storytellers in 55 shows throughout the U.S. Marshall said most of the storytellers, who discuss everything from post-traumatic stress disorder to obsessive-compulsive disorder, find out about the shows through friends or by way of audition flyers that she hangs in coffee shops, libraries and local businesses.

This year, This Is My Brave has plans to bring its performances to college campuses, where mental illness diagnoses are on the rise. Nationally, approximately one in five adults experiences mental illness in a given year.

“We have to do something, and so our small part, this organization’s work, is showing these stories; that it’s normal to go through these issues and that if you see signs in a friend, it’s OK to speak up. You could save their life,” said Marshall, who has been approached by several people who credit the live shows with helping them to open up about, and overcome, their illnesses.

One audience member told Marshall that after listening to others tell their stories, she realized she had battled anxiety and depression and never knew it until that moment.

“There’s so much to be gained from being open and being vulnerable. All you see on social media is perfection … but in reality, life has so many ups and downs and we all go through them. And if we can talk about our darkest struggles and how we made it through, there’s just so much to gain from that,” Marshall said.

This Is My Brave is also working on a documentary to reach people beyond the live events. (A short version will be available on the nonprofit’s website in May; filming and fundraising for a longer feature is currently in the works.) But Marshall’s ultimate goal is to no longer need an organization that provides a safe space for discussing mental health.

“This is My Brave exists so that one day we can live in a world where we don’t have to call it ‘brave’ for talking openly about mental illness,” she said.

“We’ll just call it ‘talking.’”

This Is My Brave’s next performance is Saturday, April 6 in Baltimore. Information on this show and others is available on the nonprofit’s website.

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