May 4, 2016

In an effort to highlight Mental Health Awareness Month, I had the privilege of photographing and interviewing five individuals who receive care through the Promise Center, a mental health facility, in Ottumwa, Iowa.

Amy was about 17 when she was diagnosed with depression. She says it hit her all at once one Friday night while she was waiting for her parents to come home from dinner.

“I knew my dad had a gun in the house,” she says, “so I went and got his gun and was holding it and I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do anything.”

She says that she ended up calling a friend who was able to keep her on the phone until her parents came home. They drove her to the hospital where she was diagnosed with depression. It wasn’t until years later, however, that doctors changed her diagnosis to schizoaffective.

Amy says that she goes through periods of depression, sometimes punctuated with very high spirits, but that those feelings of elation are infrequent.

She also says that too often mental illness is confused with mental handicap and that she feels those with mental illnesses are rarely given a chance in life.

Around Christmas-time in 2014, Jimmy reached out to Southern Iowa Mental Health for treatment of his severe depression.

"It was either that or end my life," he says.

He describes his depression as varying from mildly focusing on regrets to not wanting to be around anyone. It was this kind of loneliness, he explains, that led him to using drugs.

After his wife left him in 2010, he says he fell into a destructive spiral that ended with him alone in his trailer with a razor to his wrists. He had fallen behind on rent and says he was tired of living the way he was living.

“I was hearing voices and stuff, and the voices were telling me to kill myself. That’s what made me change. Made me get help."

When his doctor asked him if he was willing to give up drugs in exchange for medication, Jimmy did not hesitate.

“The day she put me on medication was the day I gave up my drugs," he says. "I’ve been off the drugs since.”

Jimmy says he wishes people would take the time to consider people’s mental illness and not just judge them blindly. He also urged those without mental illness to attend mental health help group meetings.

“Just to see what it’s like, to show you what we go through.”

When she was 14, doctors knew Mary had a mental illness, but it was not until 2005 that she was correctly diagnosed with a personality disorder. She says it makes her feel like she's constantly ricocheting from one extreme to another; from having really high energy to wanting to be left alone.

When Mary was younger, she says her parents didn't really care what she did. She was in and out of foster care throughout her childhood and grew up in an atmosphere of alcohol-fueled abuse.

It wasn't until her own children had been placed in foster care and she was arrested for arson that she says she found help for her mental illness. As part of her sentencing, the judge required her to regularly see a psychiatrist and therapist. In 2007 she regained custody of her children.

Mary says the biggest misconception with mental illness is that you can work through it by sheer willpower. She says she struggled with reaching out for help.

“But you really have to do it," she said. "You really do. That’s the only way you’re really going to get your life straightened around.”

Mary also says she wishes there was not such a stigma around mental illness.

“They think it’s contagious; it is just a mental illness, you know.”

Erin was 24 when she was diagnosed with chronic depression and borderline personality disorder. She wishes the resources were available to her when she was younger that are available to people with mental illness now.

Everyone with borderline personality disorder experiences it differently. For Erin, she says it feels like a constant tumult of emotions.

Although her disorder is not curable, Erin says she’s learned the necessary skills to cope with it.

“There’s no treatment. But the older I get, the more I work at it, the more experience I have, the easier it gets,” she says.

She says that just because a person has a mental illness, it doesn’t mean he or she can’t function in society. She says that those with mental illnesses aren't monsters. If you know someone with depression or mental illness and you feel comfortable with that person, she urges you to reach out and get to know them.

She says don't make someone a diagnosis.

"I’d like someone to look at me and say, ‘You know, that’s Erin. That’s not borderline personality.”

Stacy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder when she was about 2 years old. In the past, she says her mental illness would make it so that she didn’t care who she fought or hurt.

It was this violent behavior, she says, that led her in and out of group homes and psychiatric hospitals. About three years ago however she realized she wanted to turn her life around.

Stacy describes having schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression as being on a non-stop roller coaster.

“One minute you can be happy, one moment you can be crying and one moment you could be fighting with somebody and you don’t even know it. You just snap into one of your moods and you don’t know what you’re doing.”

She urges others with mental illness to seek help. Although, in the end, she says that mental illness is just a diagnosis.

“It’s really nothing. Just how people look at it.”

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