Bellas, allow me to introduce you to my friend Bassey Ikpi.
She is an AMAZING woman. Super smart, super funny, brave and outspoken and fabulous and SO talented. You might remember her from Teen Summit back in the day, or Def Poetry Jam, where she set the stage ablaze with her soul stirring words.
Bassey has a new project and a new focus. She is the founder of a nonprofit organization called The Siwe Project, that seeks to raise awareness about a topic many in our community would prefer not to discuss — mental illness, and awareness of mental health issues. Bassey is open about her own struggles, but not everyone is able to be as forthcoming about their own. Sometimes that’s because of a job, or friends, or family. Sometimes it’s about the society you might live in – some communities are more judgmental and less compassionate than others. Sometimes it’s about the internal feelings of sadness, pain and shame that dealing with mental illness can stir up. To combat that, and help more people acknowledge their struggle, Bassey created No Shame Day. All day today, July 2, people are using the hashtag #NoShame to share their stories and inspire others to share theirs.
I reached out to Bassey for more information about No Shame Day, The Siwe Project, and mental illness awareness in the black community – not just in the US, but around the world.
Afrobella – What is The Siwe Project all about?
Bassey – The Siwe Project is an organization that seeks to promote mental health awareness in the global black community. I realized that while I was talking about my own experiences with mental illness, so many people wanted to seek help and knew they needed some help but were afraid of the stigmas attached. It bothered me that shame and stigma were preventing people from taking care of themselves. The goals of The Siwe Project are to encourage and to empower people to take care of their mental health.
Afrobella -Talk to me about No Shame Day. What inspired you to begin this movement?
Bassey – No Shame Day was actually inspired by both the It Gets Better Campaign and National HIV Testing Day. I saw how powerful those two movements were in encouraging people to take better care of themselves. When I speak about my illness, I get what I call the “me toos”. Hearing personal stories and being able to identify with someone and say ,”Hey, I feel like that too.” is so important. We feel alone in the things we go through. So I wanted there to be some voices rising above the fray that live as an example. I know that I’ve been through it with my mental health but it wasnt’ until I started speaking openly about it that I learned that I wasn’t alone in this. That sense of community inspires me to check in on my myself. No Shame Day is 24 hours of people telling their stories, inspiring and encouraging others to tell their stories. If you have been too scared to make an appointment or too scared to go see a doctor, July 2, 2012, you can get on Twitter and speak to people who can offer you the support and encouragement you may need.
Mental illness is the only disease or ailment I’ve ever seen where people are actively discouraged from getting help. It blows my mind and it upsets me. I don’t care if you don’t care about your own mental health but to talk someone else out of taking care of theirs is cruel to me. I feel like there needs to be dissenting voices and encouraging experiences. My life changed for the better once I started addressing my mental health needs and I want that for everyone. I also don’t say that I “suffer” from bipolar disorder or that I AM bipolar. I have and I live with bipolar disorder. Changing the way I speak about it has also been helpful in changing how I treat it and the place it has in my life.
It’s like if I were a dancer and I hurt my ankle. How I treat that ankle will determine whether or not I get to dance again. That’s how I treat my brain. I have a sprain so to speak. So I nurse it. I make sure I’m okay before I do certain things. I know what my triggers are. I know what my stressors are. I know to be careful during certain times of the year or around certain stimuli. It’s something that I live with. I don’t suffer from it. I know I need to change my lifestyle in order to accommodate this thing. It’s not always possible but it’s always necessary. I take care of my body and I take care of my brain.
I understand that it’s not easy or wise for everyone to speak openly about their mental health challenges. I would never ask anyone to jeopardize their lives. This isn’t about pressuring people to talk about it, this is more about encouraging those who are comfortable and can speak openly about their process to show themselves. My hope, and what I’ve experienced, is that that openness helps relieve some of the fear that and that will encourage people to treat and manage their mental health. It’s just like any other physical means to being healthy. I want folks to start adding mental health to their annual check ups.
Afrobella – What is your ultimate dream for No Shame Day and The Siwe Project?
Bassey – My dream is that it becomes a movement. I want No Shame Day to be an annual event that is written about and reported on on TV. I want PSAs. I want this idea that your mental health is just as important as your physical health to catch on. I want people to stop being afraid of “crazy”. There is so much misinformation and dangerous ideas about mental illness. It makes me angry but I also know that the ignorance comes with people really not understanding what it means to have a mental illness. Especially in the black community. It’s not something you can pray away or “think away”. It’s not a character defect or moral flaw. It’s not about a lack of faith. It is an illness and with most illnesses it must be treated and managed. It’s my dream that The Siwe Project becomes part of the larger conversation about what it means to have a mental illness and how having a mental illness is not who you are, it’s what you have. Just as you have diabetes or cancer, those things won’t necessarily kill you and your chances of surviving and thriving increase with awareness and a pro-active approach.
Afrobella – What’s your best advice for someone who’s friends or family with someone who’s got a mental illness like BPII or schizophrenia? It can be difficult for people to know how to act or what to say that’s truly helpful at times when you want to be helpful.
Bassey – The important part is to listen. To hear the person and try to understand how difficult it is for them. The next thing is to encourage them to seek treatment and offer your support during that treatment. Don’t treat them like they’re suddenly not the same person you know and love, they are. They just need some support. Tell them that this doesn’t change how you feel about them. This doesn’t change your relationship however, it is their responsibility to stick to whatever treatment and management plans suggest by a professional. I also tell people that if someone you love has a mental illness, you can love and protect and support all day but if they don’t want to get help or can’t see that they need it, there’s nothing you can do about it. Their illness may be a reason for poor behaviour but it’s not an excuse. You can not give yourself up to someone who doesn’t want to get help. Love them, welcome them with open arms when they are ready to seek treatment but you must also take care of your own mental health while trying to help them. I would suggest if they are hesitant to seek help for themselves that you offer to go with them to see someone. Having an advocate when you’re too sick to speak for yourself is also very important. Take care, love and support them but not at the expense of your own well being. You cant’ help them if you are too battered from it.
Afrobella – It’s entirely possible that this idea of No Shame Day will spark realization in many. I think of people I grew up with in Trinidad, a country where mental illness comes with a lot of stigma and people are dismissed as being “mad,” and looking back now with the understanding eye I hope that I have, I recognize signs of undiagnosed mental illness. What is your best advice for people who might recognize themselves in your story, and the stories that will come from No Shame Day? What is your advice for people beginning to realize they’re dealing with illness of their own?
Bassey – Take a breath. Take a moment. Make a phone call. One thing I reinforce is that “this is not who you are. This is what you have.” You have an illness and it is confusing and upsetting and frustrating but now that you know, you get to do something about it and that is such a victory. The sense of relief once things start to make sense is empowering and overwhelming but be proud of yourself for coming as far as you have. But you can not do this alone. You need to seek professional help in order to improve your life and live the life that you were meant to have. If there are people around you who are dismissive or unsupportive, find a support group. Call your local hospital and ask for the behavioral health department and ask them for assistance finding doctors in your area. That’s a little trick I learned. People in BHD aren’t allowed to be discharged without having a doctor and plan in place so they do have a list on hand. Just remember that you’re going to be okay once you get through it. You can email me email@example.com and I will do as much as I can to help you find resources. In order to take care of my own mental health, I can’t be the only direction you turn but I can help steer you towards assistance.
Afrobella – How can we support The Siwe Project, No Shame Day, and you, Bassey? Tell Afrobellas what you’re up to and how people can keep up with you!
Bassey – You can support The Siwe Project by following us on twitter: @thesiweproject, liking us on facebook: The Siwe Project. Follow us there and I will link you with more information on how you can download a twibbon. If you’re interested in sharing your story and you want to blog or vlog or tweet, make sure you use the #NoShame hashtag. Email me a link to your blog: b.ikpi@TheSiweProject.org or visit our website www.thesiweproject.org and donate if you can or subscribe as a contributor to share your story and read about others.
The main thing is to try and change the way you see mental illness. I hope that you read something that inspires you to show some compassion. Elyn Saks said, “The Humanity we all share is more important than the mental illness we may not.” And I hope that the Siwe Project has a small part in driving that message home.
If you want to stay connected with me, I have a much more lighthearted, though personal, twitter page: @basseyworldlive and a blog of my own that is being relaunched this summer www.basseyworldlive.com. I share stories about my life and living with illness and raising a 5 year old.
Thank you for answering my questions, for creating this campaign around this very important cause, and for being awesome in general.
Bellas, please feel free to comment here, but really if you want to share, today’s the day and now is the time. Log onto Twitter and use the hashtag #NoShame to share your story. If you or anyone you know are dealing with issues related to mental health, please know that there should be no shame.