Making it “OkayToSay!”

By Cynthia Cunningham

My daughter has bipolar disorder.  There!  I said it.  Ten years ago I said aloud those scary words that send many of my family and friends into hiding.  But why?  This diagnosis just means that her brain has some problems maintaining her moods, activity levels and often just completing daily tasks.  That doesn’t sound like something to be afraid of, does it?

But yet, our society is afraid!  We’ve been taught for centuries that mental illness is a bad thing to be fearful of. Look at any social media and you will see memes using mental illness as a joke. And today, you can hardly go a day without hearing the words that apply to mental health issues.  “He is acting so schizo!”  “This weather is crazy!”

Somehow we forgot to use the correct language.  And by using words that are associated with mental health conditions, without even realizing it, we have once again stigmatized mental illness.  By keeping the stigma alive against mental illness, we shame those who are living with this condition.  Isn’t that the bullying that we have been teaching our children not to do to others?  Not sure this is offensive? Test yourself: replace any of the words used for mental health with the word “Cancer”.  Is it still funny?

Did you know that 1 in 4 people live with a mental health condition?  If these numbers don’t catch your attention, try these:

  • There are an estimated 80,022,714* people living in the U.S. with a mental health condition.
  • There are an estimated 6,923,821* people living in Texas with a mental health condition.
  • There are an estimated 65,802* people living in Waco with a mental health condition.

That’s a lot of people that we are offending with our words!  And those words cause people to want to hide away and not seek help.  Instead they try to handle these illnesses themselves, or chose not to acknowledge that there is even anything wrong.  Some are so overcome with the pain of dealing with the mental illness that they chose to end the pain.  And we can stop this!  We MUST stop this!

So how can we fix it?  We need to start the conversations that let people know that it is ok to talk about mental illness.  Luckily, there is just such an initiative that was launched in Texas!  The Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute launched OkayToSay.org this year.  This initiative increases awareness that most mental health conditions are treatable.  It gives hope to those affected by these conditions.

Since this is a Texas-based initiative, any and all Texans can contribute.  You can join those who have already posted, like President George W. Bush, Emmitt Smith, and Mark Cuban. This website shows you a few different ways to “make it okay to say.”  You can share your own personal story, add your name to the support wall, you can post a video telling others how it is ok to talk about mental illness.  You can even select to share messages on your social media and invite others to share their voices.

The real importance of this initiative is to get the conversations going about how important it is to talk about mental health conditions.  Right now there is a nationwide shortage of psychiatrists.  Often when someone decides to seek help they face a long waiting period just for the initial visit.  And that is if they have insurance.  Those without insurance coverage must rely on other local programs, which are also quite busy.  By having conversations, we can start raising awareness and addressing issues with our political representatives to get more focus on services and programs that are really needed to address these health issues.

I am a living example of how talking about mental illness makes a difference.  I spoke up for my daughter, got her the medical help she needed and got education for our whole family so we could learn how to help her live a life of recovery with her mental health condition.  Today she is my pride and joy.  She is happily married and works as a Certified Peer Support Specialist for NAMI Waco.  Her job, along with our other 11 peers, is part of our free Peer Support program for people who have a mental health diagnosis and seek to improve their health.

I was once asked why I talked so openly about my daughter’s illness.  My reply was “No one ever told me not to talk about it and I realized that the more I talked the more I learned and could help her and others.”  As a result, I learned about NAMI.org.  A grassroots organization that’s purpose is to educate, support and advocate for those whose lives have been affected by a mental health condition.  This was just what my family needed!  And I found it by speaking out!  I am pleased to say today I work for the local affiliate, NAMI Waco, doing a job that I love.  I am one person, but I can make a difference!  I am doing my part to help others through this difficult journey. And I hope others will join me!

It is really simple to do!  This work was started earlier this year in Waco by a mental health committee of Prosper Waco and we want to make it spread.  It is quite simple to use.  Just go to OkayToSay.org, search “in your area” and click on “share your story”.  Let’s all make it OkayToSay!!!!


cynthia-cunninghamCynthia Cunningham, a Wacoan since age 2, is the Executive Director for NAMI Waco.  She lives with her husband of 28 years, Bobby, and two spoiled dogs and one royal cat!  Her passion is educating others about mental health.  She can be contacted at: www.NAMIWaco.com

The Act Locally Waco blog publishes posts with a connection to these aspirations for Waco. If you are interested in writing for the Act Locally Waco Blog, please email ashleyt@actlocallywaco.org for more information.

*using data from the projected 2015 census

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