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San Diegans Combat Stigma By Sharing Personal Struggles With Mental Illness

Evening Edition

Nic McVicker

Regina Whicker, 38, talks about her mental health issues, which began when she was a teenager.

Aired 8/27/14 on KPBS News.

The stigma surrounding mental illness is a powerful force. Some San Diegans with mental health issues are trying to reduce it, by sharing their personal stories.

For Regina Whicker, the mood swings and crying fits began when she was in the sixth grade.

“By the time I entered junior high, that’s when it was very noticeable to my family and myself that something wasn’t quite right," Whicker recalled.

Whicker’s mom brought her to a therapist. She was diagnosed with depression.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates one out of four Americans has a mental health issue. What’s more, mental illness is the No. 1 cause of disability in the United States.

In Whicker's case, she hated being labeled.

“I wanted to be normal," she said. "I was a kid, so to be 13 and told you’re different (was difficult). And depression — that word didn’t make sense to me.”

As time went on, it became more and more difficult for Whicker to go to school. She just couldn’t take it.

“I just wanted to be at home. I just wanted to have the blinds drawn and just sleep,” Whicker remembered.

She took a variety of different medications. Not one of them was a good fit. She didn’t like the side effects.

The depression and anxiety continued.

When she was in her 20s, Whicker had a troubled marriage. After her divorce, her life continued to unravel.

A few years later, she hit rock bottom.

“I remember getting in my car and driving up to Oceanside, and just ready to end it all,” Whicker said.

Getting Help For Others

Here are some suggestions from San Diego County's It's Up To Us website on dealing with someone who is exhibiting signs of mental illness:

  • Read up on signs and symptoms.
  • Speak up and talk openly about what he/she is experiencing.
  • Listen up and really hear what he/she is saying and feeling.
  • Link up with local resources. Offer to get help together.
  • Follow up and offer continued support.

But Whicker didn't take her life, and now she shares her story to try to help others who are suffering from mental illness. It's part of the In Our Own Voice program, sponsored by the National Alliance for Mental Illness.

Michelle Macdonald, who coordinates the program, recently spoke to a class of future therapists at Brandman University, which is part of the Chapman University System.

“If you look at me, you wouldn’t know my story, and how much I’ve suffered, and that I wanted to take my life, and I’ve been in jail," Macdonald told the audience. "You would not know those things. I’m not going to share my story tonight. But they are.”

She then introduced Whicker and Deva Lipson, who talked to the class about dealing with severe mental illness and what helped get them into recovery. Both are from San Diego.

Lipson didn't pull any punches.

“My whole world crashed," she said. "I became psychotic, I had a severe episode, and ended up in a psychiatric hospital, one of these kind of locked wards where they lock the door and throw away the key.”

After Lipson and Whicker talked about some of their lowest moments, they told the audience how they finally came to accept that they had a problem.

Whicker said she realized it two years ago.

That’s when a doctor told her she had borderline bipolar disorder, in addition to severe depression.

“I’m like, OK, that explained it," Whicker said. "And once I was able to take that in from what the doctor said, it made it a little bit easier, because I think it made a difference that I was older, and I wanted that help finally. Or at least I wanted to get better.”

For Whicker, accepting that she had a mental illness was the first step toward recovery. It took the shame and guilt out of it.

“And I was like, oh, OK. I’m gonna live with this forever. It’s not something that, oh, I feel better, and I just go on. I wish it was that way, but it’s not," she said.

Mental Health Resources

Life-threatening emergency: Call 911.

Crisis Hotline: (888) 724-7240. Phone line is answered by professionals 24/7. The call is free and confidential.

Suicide Hotline: (800) 273-8255. Phone line operates 24/7.

Mental health websites: National Alliance on Mental Illness in San Diego is at namisandiego.org. San Diego County's It's Up To Us is at up2sd.org.

Whicker gets a lot of emotional support from her sister, whom she lives with. She also benefits from spending time with others in recovery.

Therapy student Jessica Bradley said listening to the speakers helped reinforce the idea that recovery doesn’t happen overnight.

“It’s a lifelong discovery and process, and I loved hearing what their journey was along those lines," Bradley said. "And I think it was really helpful to know what helped them, and what really kind of made a difference for them to want to - just have hope and keep going in their lives.”

Whicker said when she shares her story, people frequently tell her that she doesn’t look like somebody who has a mental illness.

“I have this big smile, you know, and I stand tall. And people automatically cannot believe it," she said. "So I’m hoping by being a face of, not what I think people think is the normal, maybe the homeless guy. They’re seeing me, they’ll think, oh, okay. Well maybe, I don’t want to say 'not as bad,' but maybe 'it’s not what I thought.'”

Macdonald said she’s surprised how for many people mental illness is an abstract concept.

“My experience is when I share my story, they’re like, 'You were what?' 'You did what?' 'And then what happened?' And so when we put a face to it, it makes it real and makes people say, 'Oh, yeah, that’s my sister, that’s my brother. Oh, man, that was me,'" Macdonald said.

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