qtq80-SFJ5TMI’ve had a great life so far, and my mental health has been part of the picture. I spent the first half of my 54 years as a student and eventually a researcher, earning a doctorate in industrial and organizational psychology in 1992.  I had planned for a career as an academic or consultant, yet persistent, severe bipolar illness (I’ve been hospitalized over 20 times) led to me to go on social security disability in 1994 and make a very different sort of life for myself.

In 1996, when I met the great mental health advocate Terry Grimes Ed.D., I realized my life could be full of very meaningful and productive activities in service to others.  Since 2002 I have directed my organization’s Computer Empowerment Program, which provides computers and training to mental health peers in my area, the New River Valley of Virginia.  I’ve loved computer empowerment immensely, ever since Terry and I thought of it while driving down I-81 after a day of volunteering at On Our Own Drop-In Center in Roanoke. Terry passed away in 2011.

The most important issue for me is finding a spark within each computer empowerment participant that leads to discovery and growth using today’s information technology.  It could be communicating via Facebook or Twitter, it could be learning to play a cool new game, it could using the computer to take online classes.  I’ve witnessed many moments of transformation in my computer empowerment work, and I’m always eager for more.  I’ve made so many wonderful friends this way, friends who inspire me in so many ways.

The enriching direction I’ve pursued with computer empowerment wouldn’t have occurred in my life without my experience with persistent mental illness, and I’m grateful to have found a niche with so much meaning.  I’ve also begun creating music for band that hopes to perform at local mental hospitals, bringing a message of empowerment and possibility to those who so often feel lost and alone. My mental challenges have provided perspective and opportunity in my life pursuits, and it is hard for me to imagine what life would be like if I wasn’t a “mental person.”

I wish more of the public knew about peer-directed mental health advocacy and how we can contribute while battling mental illness.  Too often the public is fed stories of violence and despair and is largely ignorant of the peer movement and how we can shape our destinies in a positive way. VOCAL and other organizations are battling these false images and stigma yet much more remains to be accomplished before we can truly take our place in society.  Our journey towards that goal will be difficult at times but greatly rewarding. Once we attain a substantial and effective political presence, I feel that we will be able to foster a mental health system that works for us rather than a system that imposes itself upon us. I hope more mental health consumers will follow VOCAL’s lead in asserting leadership and I hope people find that spark which leads to personal growth and fulfillment.