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John Tessitore is the Founder of the JCK Foundation, a non-profit devoted to ending the stigma of mental illness.

Why the World Needs More Mental Health Leaders Today

Why the World Needs More Mental Health Leaders Today

The definition of a “leader”

Who do you think of when you hear the word “leader?” You probably think of someone strong, courageous, mentally sound, and practical. You’ll think of someone who can think on her feet, and solve problems like she was born specifically for it. You’ll also think of someone who is generally positive; someone you’ll very rarely catch a glimpse of a negative emotion from. She’ll have absolutely everything together and be constantly accomplishing goals with seemingly little effort. Essentially, you’ll think of a role model, who possesses all of the traits you wish to have.

Now, I want you to think of this leader again, except with a mental illness. What traits does she have now? Oh, I know what you’re thinking. Suddenly, she’s rendered unstable. In your mind, she becomes

irrational, impulsive and volatile. You might worry that she’ll be too out of her mind to make sound decisions, or that she’s fragile. She won’t have a clue what to do with her life. She couldn’t possibly be a role model. She’s just someone who’s on rock bottom.

Why, though, should her mental illness change her previous traits or how you see her? They shouldn’t.

However, here’s a prime example of how the stigma of mental illness affects others’ perceptions of the people struggling with them.

I’m a mental health advocate, and even I’ve fallen into that toxic belief. Here’s the kicker, though: the person I believed such nasty things about was myself.

 I’m a mental health advocate, and even I’ve fallen into that toxic belief.

I’m a mental health advocate, and even I’ve fallen into that toxic belief.

 

Living in the shadows

In my high school years, I’d always been a follower. I never thought much of myself, so I felt the need to

conform to everyone else’s standards so that they thought I was cool by association. My sole purpose was to be someone’s shadow, and that’s all I knew how to be. Even though I felt discouraged and tired of that facade, I continued on that way for quite some time.

I didn’t think I really had a choice. As a person who struggled then, and still struggles now with anxiety and depression, I never felt that I would fit very well into a leadership role. I didn’t feel that I could even help people unless I’d already fully helped myself.

I was stuck.

When my senior year of high school rolled around, I finally got to a point where I started to take my future seriously. I wondered, “Would I want my future to continue on the path of my present?” The answer to that was finally, “no.” I didn’t know how I was suddenly going to become this confident being or truly own my life. What I did know was that I no longer wanted to solely be someone else’s shadow. I wanted to pave a way for something, even if it was only my own life.

 

 A photo from my  instagram

A photo from my instagram

Diving into darkness

When I first started college, without the comfort people that I’d hidden behind in high school, I felt vulnerable; naked in a sea of judging eyes. I knew not being in someone else’s shadow was better for me, but in those moments, I couldn’t help but feel tempted to go back to what was comfortable, and natural to me. I actually did slip into my old ways quite a few times, seeking the validation of others to keep me afloat. I learned that people can be quick to take advantage of the poor people who are approval-seeking. It was an exhausting, mentally-draining journey, on top of my anxiety and depression making me feel less real.

I felt that all I could do was fail and relapse; my life an ongoing consequence of my low self-discipline to get better. My mindset flipped from at least slightly hopeful to totally hopeless. There was nothing I could own. My well-being was in the hands of others and my mental illnesses.

Finding real leaders

Between the struggles, I found a passion in psychology, namely mental health. In that field, I saw others who were struggling like I was, but still making themselves these amazing sources of inspiration. They were sharing stories of their various ups and downs due to mental illness, yet showing that they still prevailed through perseverance. They were role models; they were leaders.

That came as a shock to me. I envisioned a leader the same way most people would, but ended up finding the leaders that really spoke to my heart in the form of those with mental illnesses. For the first time in a while, I finally felt hopeful again.

That’s when I decided to turn my struggles into an art of self-expression. I became a mental health advocate and blogger. I had absolutely no idea exactly how I was going to start, or what I wanted to say. However, the least that I wanted to do was to help people avoid the mistakes I made, and feel less alone in the struggles no one else wanted to talk about.

As another source of surprise, people actually began to respond well to that! I found more like-minded individuals who struggled with mental illness, and we instilled hope in each other to continue on in life. My timid idea became a mutualistic network, and I was ecstatic.

 

 You can do it.

You can do it.

Mental health advocacy was by no means something I’d invented or even made a new name for. However, through advocacy, I found that it was still possible to lead and pave a path for myself, even though I still felt that I was on rock bottom.

There is no concrete model of a leader. The image that pops into most people’s heads when they hear the word “leader” is what society has pushed us to believe for ages. However, they can come in all shapes, sizes, and stages of mental health. I’d actually like to think that a truly effective leader can start from the bottom, and bring herself up as she brings others around her up, as well. It helps others to feel more hopeful when they have a leader that is within their reach, not just a leader who is preaching about their successes like they’re on an infomercial.

You can pave a great path for others, even as you’re still working on helping yourself. Leading is never out of bounds.

Please feel free to stop by and say, “hi!” on Instagram where I share my journey as a mental health advocate with as many people as possible.

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