Image: This Is My Brave. Photo Credit: Sweet Memories Photography

Hope and Grace Fund Spotlight: This Is My Brave

May 27, 2016

One of the most damaging aspects of mental illness is the feeling of isolation, that no one understands what you’re going through. It’s through the sharing of our personal stories that we come out of the shadows and into the light of solutions and community around living and thriving through mental health conditions, that by connecting over shared experiences that we know that not only are we not alone, but we’re accepted as part of a larger community. It in the spirit of these beautiful shared stories that we highlight our next Hope and Grace Fund grant recipient: This Is My Brave.

We had an opportunity to speak with Jennifer Marshall, the creator and co-founder of this amazing women’s mental health initiative. In her own words, this is what the power of personal storytelling can do:

“The mission of This Is My Brave is to end the stigma surrounding mental illness through creative storytelling. We do that through programs we put on in theaters in communities across the US where individuals shed light on what they’ve been through and how they’ve found recovery through creative means. They shared these messages through poetry, original music, or personal essays.

The idea was inspired by Listen To Your Mother; a theatre show my friend started in 2010 where women share stories about motherhood. I first attended her show in DC as a Mother’s Day present to my mother-in-law. We loved it, and my mother-in-law suggested I do something similar as a show about mental illness. I thought to myself, I hate to steal someone’s idea, but she’s right: (mental illness) needs to be talked about. We don’t talk enough about mental health issues. Also, it’s kind of a stereotype but it’s kind of true that a lot of people who live with mental health conditions tend to be very creative and artistic, so what better way to get them to express their stories but through these different mediums?

I believe strongly in the concept that sharing your story can help save you personally. I had been blogging since 2011, writing a blog called Bipolar Mom Life about my own journey, and, but anonymously at first because my family was really afraid of what might happen, that the stigma was and is very real, and people might discriminate against me. I stayed anonymous for the first year and a half, but an editor from What To Expect found my blog and asked if I would write for them. One essay turned into a regular, paid blogging gig, and I realized that I really loved doing this, that I wanted to do more of it, and that I wasn’t ashamed. I live with an illness that’s happened in my brain, I’m living successfully despite it, and I want to share my story so other women know you can hope, a future, and a family, that it’s possible if you work with your doctors and support system. I decided to add my name to my articles, and the first piece of mine they published with my real name wound up on the home page of AOL. Suddenly, friends and all these people in my community who didn’t know what I was going through came up to me and thanked me for sharing my story. Each one of them had a sister, a cousin, and/or a friend — everyone knew someone who had Bipolar Disorder. Everyone knows someone, and we’re all affected by it. That outpouring of support was what made me want to start This Is My Brave.

I happened to meet my co-founder Anne Marie at a party, where she recognized me from my site, which is really funny. She said she read my blog and loved it, which started us talking about her story. At the time, her son had been going through a really tough struggle where he had such bad anxiety and depression and couldn’t get out of bed or go to school. She couldn’t find any resources on her own, but when she did open to her circle of friends, someone said they’d had a similar struggle and shared a resource with her. But the fact was, people weren’t really talking about these kinds of things. I told her about my idea, that I was just getting ready to launch it, and she said she wanted to help.  I think she thought she was just going to help me with marketing and communication — which is what she does as a full-time job — but she ended up getting roped in as my co-founder, and we’ve launched it from the start together. Even though we didn’t have a cast, I knew how much opening up about my story helped my recovery journey, and I knew it would have the same effect on other people.

We got our start on Kickstarter in the fall of 2013. We were trying to raise $6500, and we ended up raising over $10,000 in 31 days. It was apparent that people wanted this to happen. We had donations from our friends and family, but we had a guy donate from Russia, people from Canada, etc. In 2014, we held auditions, and put the call out in the DC metro area, asking for people who were ready to share their story. We had a good amount of people come out, and we had to turn some people away, which is the hardest part of doing any of this because everyone’s story is important. We cast the first show with 14 storytellers, and with local TV coverage, newspapers, and local magazines we ended up selling out a theater of 400 people. The show was a big success, and afterwards people kept asking us to bring it to their city, which is how we’ve expanded. We’re a small operation; we rely on volunteers, so when people to come forward who want to put on a show in their city, we give them the tools to put on a show. The money raised comes back to us so we can continue our efforts, build infrastructure and have further reach. We also professionally record all the shows so we can share them on our YouTube channel, so anyone can watch them in the future.

By the way, we call it an ‘audition’ and we call the members of the team ‘cast members’, but they’re just real, regular people sharing true stories; they’re not actors. We’re actually thinking about calling them ‘storytellers’ because that’s more accurate to what they are and what they do.

We’ve done 13 shows altogether. We’re trying to do five more this fall. Our goal for 2016 was 10 shows in a year, going from six shows last year to ten this year.

We have a lot of success stories from our shows. One woman came to our first show, and came by afterwards and said, “I found your blog in the darkest moments of my depression, and your writing saved my life.” I was floored. That’s the impact of putting your story out there on the internet: you never know how many people will see them and be inspired to keep going, so that’s why we do it. I was so grateful she was inspired; her words that first night kept me going over the past couple of years because it’s really hard work to put these shows on, but to know that you have kind of impact even on one person makes it all worth it.

She’s mentioned at that time that she’s been having trouble conceiving. We lost touch for a while, but she sent me an email after Mother’s Day this year with another note that said, “I just wanted to thank you again for all you’re doing with This Is My Brave. I’ve been following the stories. I just wanted you to know that I’m celebrating my first Mother’s Day, and my daughter’s a month old” I still get choked up talking about it. She’d listened to me when I told her to listen to her doctors, and she’d had a health pregnancy, and her daughter is thriving and she’s doing well. It’s just amazing to have that kind of impact. We hear stories like this a lot from people who have been inspired by the stories that have been told. I feel like people learn a lot from our shows, too. They learn what’s worked for one person, and what could work for them. But the most important thing they learn is not to give up. It’s not easy living with a mental illness, but you can get through it.

We’re so, SO excited to be announced as a grant recipient from the Hope and Grace Fund. We’re putting on what we’re going to call Leading Ladies Live Brave: A Women’s Mental Health Summit. We’re going to bring together women in leadership-type roles who are ready to share their stories through our format. It will be like a mini This Is My Brave show, but during a luncheon. After the show, we’ll facilitate small group discussions at the tables and do a Q&A with a psychiatrist and a therapist. The women will leave with resources and other goodies in take-away bags so they themselves feel equipped to seek out more resources in our local community and feel more confident taking charge of mental health issues. Hopefully, even if the attendees don’t have a mental health issue, they’ll feel empowered and inspired to talk to a friend or family member who has a mental health concern. We’re in the process right now to get hotels to bid on the event so we can secure the space.

If you think you want to bring this to your community, there’s a place on our website where we’re looking for producers. You can fill out an interest form to bring a show to your city. The auditions are usually a couple of months before the show, so we’ll probably be auditioning in late July/early August for the fall shows. Those announcements will come out after we’ve selected the fall cities. So, stay tuned: more information is forthcoming.

We also sell merchandise as a fundraiser for our events. We have jewelry outsourced through an external provider where we get a kickback from items sold, and we have our brave beads, which are created from Acai berries by volunteers that are hand-strung with a charm. They’re really popular and beautiful. We don’t make a lot, but people can help get the message out when people wear our merchandise.

I want you to know that when I first got sick ten years ago, my first episode came out of nowhere. I remember being devastated by the diagnosis, thinking how was I ever going to get better or recover from this? I want women to know that it gets better, that you can get through it, and there are resources available. I want you to know that, if you’ve just found out about This Is My Brave, our website and YouTube channel is filled with personal stories of people, and their story might be really similar to yours. You may find hope from listening to someone’s story. Read through our blog, and check out our YouTube channel because hearing someone else’s story makes you feel less alone; it helps you to know that others have been through the same struggles and have come out much stronger on the other end. You can, too.