Destigmatizing Mental Illness One Story at a Time

Everyone has a story.
Everyone feels insignificant at times.
Everyone has challenges.
Everyone will experience both bad and good.
Everything we experience and go through is a part of us,
but it doesn’t have to define us.
And, most important: Others have been where you are;
you are not alone.
From The People You Meet in Real Life, 2013, Brighton Publishing LLC

Melissa Hopely Rice was back on the Hill and she felt great, although she has not always felt this way. Presenting before a packed crowd in Loyola Hall during the spring semester, Rice credits Immaculata University with giving her the strength to open up about her mental illness, which has challenged her since early childhood.

Graduating from Immaculata University in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in Psychology and minors in both Public Relations and History, Rice has utilized these disciplines to forge a career path that she could never have imagined when she arrived as a freshman. After nearly a decade helping people with mental illness through speaking, advocating, and writing the book The People You Meet in Real Life, Rice realizes that she has made a difference in people’s lives. She has sought to destigmatize the term “mental illness” and brought the issue to the forefront so both parents and young people can engage in frank, meaningful conversations—something that Rice desperately needed when facing her own illness as a child growing up in Havertown, PA.

“I grew up in a world where I was taught that if you have mental health issues, you’re weak, and it makes you different,” she stated. She acknowledges that many times parents also bear the brunt of blame for their children’s mental condition. Often the family cannot deal with these issues because Rice asserts, “We are not allowed to get help since ‘we don’t talk about it.’”

One statistic that Rice stressed during her presentation was “one in four.” Making those numbers relatable to the students in the audience, Rice conjured up the image of four friends eating lunch in the dining room. One of the four young adults sitting there will have a diagnosable mental health issue. However, she warned, do not forget about two, three, and four! These are the people who may not have a chemical imbalance that affects them, but things that happen to them are emotional and impact them just the same as the first 25 percent.
“I know my parents loved me,” says Rice.

Looking back fondly at her early childhood, Rice was a fun-loving, adventurous girl playing with her Power Wheels Barbie car. But at 5 years old she started displaying some odd behaviors: repeatedly walking in and out of doorways, turning lights on and off, touching the corners of tables, and stepping over cracks.

Rice’s mom, a pediatric nurse who deals with other parents’ children with mental health issues, went into “protective mode.” Instead of seeking professional help for what would be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) nearly a decade later, Rice’s mom insisted that she stop her behavior and hoped that it would go away eventually.

Even at such a young age, Rice’s negative thoughts, fueled by anxiety and OCD, never vanished. Worries about losing her parents, war breaking out, being shot, and even developing cancer circulated in her head endlessly. Her illness, manifested by chest pains and stomach aches, was affecting her mind and body. Without professional help, she became depressed.

As Rice explained her descent into depression and how she eventually sought medical attention during high school, the audience was mesmerized by her story. There were no students texting or even peeking at their smart phones, no snickering at her comments. Rice had captured their full attention.
Her casual, easy way of communicating took years of practice and courage to speak up and stomp out the stigma that people have surrounding mental illness. As a junior, Rice started a chapter of Active Minds on campus with the help and support of members of the Counseling Services, Psychology, and Athletics departments at Immaculata. The first event that Active Minds organized was a 5K Walk/Run called “Stomp Out Stigma,” which raised over $3,000 in its first year.

“The first time I truly ever spoke about my OCD and depression was actually on a public radio show on 99.5 WJBR, promoting the Immaculata Stomp Out Stigma 5K Walk/Run,” Rice recalled. “I then shared my story at the actual event in front of 300 people at Immaculata.”

Rice admits that the first time she told her story publicly was nerve-wracking because she feared people would judge her. She was certainly not expecting the exact opposite to occur. “Afterward, I had people coming up to me, emailing me, Facebook messaging me, sharing their personal stories and letting me know how thankful they were to finally feel like they were not alone.” This impactful reaction from the Immaculata community was the impetus for Rice to continue sharing her story to help break the stigma related to mental health. Now, she often presents to audiences as large as 4,000.

“It became clear that she was an advocate for others and passionately desired to help,” stated Maria Cuddy-Casey, Ph.D., professor of Psychology, who met Rice in her Self-Awareness through Groups course. “I knew she would make a difference; I knew she already had.”

Writing the book The People You Meet in Real Life was a way for Rice to incorporate and honor the people she met throughout her journey who were sharing their personal stories with her—perhaps for the first time in their lives. Among those featured in her book are several of Rice’s Immaculata friends and teammates from her softball and soccer teams. Having an opportunity to catch up with her friends, share their stories with her readers, and see how well each of them is doing made the writing process even more of a blessing.

Perhaps her most profound contribution to destigmatizing mental illness is her ability to make people feel comfortable around her and to want to share with her their own personal story. After the presentation at Immaculata, several students approached Rice to thank her for broaching a topic that most people are afraid to delve into—and they also wanted to thank Rice for making them feel that they are not alone.

Melissa Hopely Rice and her husband Rich live in Aston, PA with their 2-year-old daughter, aptly named Hope. Rice plans to continue her speaking engagements with the non-profit organization Minding Your Mind and finish creating a video trailer for her book.

Author: aduncan

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