Although yesterday marked the end of this year’s Mental Health Month, the discussion and efforts to raise awareness in order to break the stigma must remain a daily conversation. So, I’m keeping the momentum going by featuring Brandon Ha, an amazing friend who also happens to be a kick ass mental health advocate and the creative director behind Break Yo Stigma, a social media campaign focused on breaking the shameful stigma of mental illness. I first came across Brandon’s @breakyostigma Instagram page over a year ago when I was brainstorming ways to positively use social media for sharing my views on psychiatry. The posts on @breakyostigma were bold, articulate, and uncensored when it came to the fallacies of our mental health system, and served as my inspiration to be more vocal about my own views via social media. Therefore, I’m proud and excited to feature Brandon as a guest blogger as he discusses how his bipolar diagnosis ignited a drive to change the public’s views towards mental illness.
We all knew that one person in high school who you thought was going to be successful. You know, become a doctor or lawyer (or these days, some tech founder) and have it all. A house on the hill, the love and support of family and friends, and wealth to be able to do anything he/she wanted.
Goals to that person were no obstacle and dreams were just a mere foreshadowing of the inevitable. And we all knew that person who had this unlimited potential to achieve whatever they wanted in life, but failed. I knew the latter person from high school pretty closely — it was me.
Mental illness robbed me of the person I could’ve become. My symptoms began as a third year in college as I had aspirations to become a pediatrician, though there were plenty of signs it started much sooner. My focus began slipping and I started to fail my classes. And though I had plenty of friends in college, including my high school sweetheart, I couldn’t turn to them for support. Passing by the counseling center every single day on the way home, I couldn’t open the door and walk in. Got a problem? Hell no, not me.
But there definitely was a problem, and failing out of college was just the beginning.
That summer, like most college dropouts, I needed to do some major soul searching. I decided to take a trip to Vietnam and visit the country and my family whom I’d never met. Nothing like taking a trip to the motherland and discovering your roots to get you back on track, right? I’d find myself and head toward the path to success again in no time. But as my extended stay in Southeast Asia went on, my moods began shifting dramatically.
Sleeping less and less, sometimes no more than two hours a night; partly due to the suffocating humidity and partly due to my mind constantly racing. Getting enough sleep was an afterthought though because I felt, ironically, even more energy the less sleep I got. I wanted to do everything, and at the time, I thought I could. Start a nonprofit organization, found a tech startup, go to medical school – it was all in the realm of possibility in my world. I didn’t find the fountain of youth in Vietnam. Instead, I found the fountain of energy. My family, who’d just met me for the very first time, thought I was crazy. They weren’t wrong.
After seven weeks and with my grandiosity at its absolute peak, I returned back to the states a different person. I had lost 18 pounds from not sleeping enough for weeks on end. The dark circles around my eyes made me look like an extra from 28 Days Later (Walking Dead wasn’t around for another decade), and my flight of ideas continued non-stop. I was hospitalized in a psychiatric hospital shortly after my return. Diagnosis: bipolar disorder, type 1.
I was officially crazy.
It has been 14 years since my diagnosis. I could write forever about what I’ve gone through and seen during my years of hospitalizations and suicide attempts; the countless times I turned to drugs and alcohol to numb the pain I foolishly thought no one would understand. I wish I could tell you I was that successful person everyone thought would have made it. But alas, there’s no house on the hill or fancy graduate degree hanging in my office.
Today, however, I define my own success. I started working with NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in 2010 as I started my road to recovery. As I became more comfortable in my own skin and with my diagnosis, I began speaking to high school and college students about my story and advocating mental health and how to look for signs and take care of oneself. In 2012, I started Break Yo Stigma, a youth mental health campaign aimed towards fighting stigma and discrimination. And, as of February, I celebrated six years of sobriety. I may not have that diploma hanging on the wall (yet), but that sobriety chip feels pretty damn good, too.
As someone living with bipolar disorder, I know I’ll have more extreme mood swings than the average person. But even though my diagnosis is forever and there’s no cure, treatment is very possible. I live a damn good life. I know now that I’m not crazy — I never was. And neither are the millions of people around the world that live with mental illness. We’re not crazy, just misunderstood. It’s time to change that.
Break yo stigma.
Bio: Brandon Ha is the Creative Director at Break Yo Stigma, a social media campaign focused on breaking the shameful stigma of mental illness. Inspired to create change in the mental health community from his own personal experience living with bipolar disorder, he seeks to end the shame preventing many people all over the world from seeking proper mental health care. Brandon currently collaborates with Bay Area mental health organizations including NAMI Santa Clara County and Stanford Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences.