Several years ago, The Stoop Storytelling Series issued a call for personal tales about living with mental illness.
“At the time, we had never received more story submissions for any topic,” recalls Jessica Henkin, who co-founded the Baltimore-based series with Laura Wexler in 2006.
On May 21, The Stoop will revisit the theme at the program “Out of Stigma’s Shadow: Stories about Mental Health, Mental Illness and the Mysteries Inside Our Head.”
The free program — which will be held at 7 p.m. in Baltimore Hebrew Congregation’s Dalsheimer Auditorium — will be presented in partnership with Jewish Community Services, the Baltimore Jewish Council, Catholic Charities of Baltimore, MedStar Health, Baltimore magazine, the Maryland Faith Health Network, NAMI of Metro Baltimore, Behavioral Health Systems Baltimore and The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore.
Moderated by Sheilah Kast, host of WYPR’s “On the Record,” and featuring Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia T. Dzirasa, the two-hour program will showcase the stories of seven individuals impacted by mental illness. The participants, who will speak individually for five minutes, include a woman with bipolar disorder; a suicide hotline worker; a therapist; and a woman of color discussing the stigma that exists in her community.
Program panelists include Stacey Meadows, manager of child therapy services at JCS; clinical psychologist and best-selling author Kay Redfield Jamison; Dr. Renz J. Juaneza, a psychiatrist with MedStar Health; and Bishop Kevin Daniels of St. Martin Church of Christ in Baltimore.
JCS Executive Director Joan Grayson Cohen says the concept for the program came from a plenary session that she attended during a national conference.
“It was presented by a theater group, and each performer articulated their experience with mental health issues,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’d like to see the community do something like this.’”
Currently, more than 800 people have registered for “Out of Stigma’s Shadow,” says Cohen, indicating that there is “a clear need for this community conversation.”
“The issue of stigma and the barriers to finding treatment for mental illness is a national problem,” she says. “We’ve seen the results when people don’t get treatment. Suicide is on the rise, school shootings, addiction — especially to opioids — has increased, and we’re seeing more deaths from opioids. Many folks who struggle with addiction also have mental health problems. … And for many, mental illness is biologically based.”
Meadows says expressing one’s negative feelings and sharing emotional issues with others is essential, particularly for individuals who struggle with mental illness.
“In reality, life is full of ups and downs,” she says. “When we’re not able to speak about the whole human experience, it isolates us. If we think it’s not OK to be not OK, we’re unlikely to seek treatment and are more likely to stay in that [negative] place.”
Henkin agrees. “This is a part of the human condition that needs to be spoken about plainly,” she says. “[With this program] we’re hoping to move the needle.”
Cohen says she hopes the program will help audience members and others “move away from stigmas. We’ll have real-life people talking about real-life situations. Hopefully, as these people are sharing their stories, others will realize it is normal to have these issues.
“Mental health is a part of our normative world,” she says. “People shouldn’t have to suffer in silence.”
For information about “Out of Stigma’s Shadow,” visit stoopstorytelling.com.
On May 22, JCS will also present “Women & Addiction: Our Unique Risks” from 9:30 to 11 a.m. at Suburban Country Club, 7600 Park Heights Ave. The free program will feature Vickie Walters, executive director of REACH Health Services and president-elect of the Maryland Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence.
For information, visit jcsbalt.org/womenaddiction or call 410-843-7404.