By Wendy Kagan
Jennifer Marshall believes storytelling saves lives. That’s the inspiration behind This Is My Brave, the nonprofit organization Marshall created with the mission to end the stigma surrounding mental illness through live, lyrical performances of poetry, essay and song.
Staged in cities across America, “This Is My Brave: The Show” gives voice to people touched by difficult yet treatable mental health issues, from depression and anxiety to bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. Local auditions draw performers from the community, and a chosen cast of a dozen artists takes the stage for a one-night-only show filled with personal stories about living with—or loving someone with—a mental illness.
Through storytelling and shared experience, a deeper understanding emerges. “It’s the power of the human connection,” says Marshall, who co-founded This Is My Brave with her business partner Anne Marie Ames. “We all want to be heard, especially when one is going through something as significant as a mental illness. We want to know that we’ll be OK, and when we’re able to listen to a story told by someone who was able to claw their way out of a suicidal depression, we find hope.”
Marshall has shared her own story of living with bipolar disorder on her blog Bipolar Mom Life. Diagnosed 10 years ago, and finding stability through maintenance medication, the mother of two says that while our culture has made progress in ending mental illness stigma, we still have a long way to go. “The more we’re able to put our names and faces to our stories, the same way someone who has overcome cancer can feel pride in having beaten that disease, the more the general public will understand that mental illness is the same as physical illness,” she says. “The brain is an organ of the body just like our hearts, lungs and kidneys. Sometimes our brains get sick and need treatment, and no one should be ashamed or afraid of being discriminated upon because of this.”
During May, which is Mental Health Awareness Month, This Is My Brave will bring new local productions to five cities: Greenville, North Carolina; Coralville, Iowa; Arlington, Virginia; Denver, Colorado; and Valparaiso, Indiana. In each location, the show will capture the artistic talents of brave truth-sharers from the community who will deliver their stories through orated essays, spoken-word poetry and original songwriting and music.
Marshall hopes that hearing about others’ journeys will help open up conversation and encourage more people to share their experiences too. “The audience appreciation and gratitude for these inspiring stories is what keeps us going,” she says. Beyond the stage, This Is My Brave also publishes personal narratives on its blog, as well as performance pieces through its YouTube channel. Each story has the potential to open up people’s minds and hearts to the realities of mental illness, replacing stigmas and stereotypes with much-needed sensitivity and understanding.
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