EDITOR’S NOTE: Ross Trowbridge contacted me and I agreed to “come out” on August 18th. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org if you live in or near the Kansas City area, have a mental Illness, and want to participate with us.
Iowan exposes his own mental illness and encourages others to ‘come out’
“It’s Mental Health Awareness Month, and this time Ross Trowbridge isn’t running for cover, seeking anonymity or sleeping on the streets. He’s organized, and advocating for people like himself.
The 38-year-old who lives in Waterloo suffers from Borderline Personality Disorder, a fact he had felt the need to hide, to protect his standing and chance of finding a job. At one time, he earned close to $90,000 and had a wife and children. But as the illness took control, the lack of treatment options, the pressures of secrecy, and anger at the stigma itself became a vicious cycle. It led for three weeks in 2016 to his sleeping under Des Moines’ Raccoon River Bridge.
Borderline personality disorder is believed to be a non-organic condition for which there is no medication, according to Trowbridge’s therapist Hope Huff, who specializes in it. The causes are considered environmental, such as childhood abuse. She says 90 percent of sufferers have experienced trauma. The major form of treatment is behavioral therapy to get out of unproductive thought patterns and enhance coping skills.
Trowbridge eventually reached that conclusion. “I knew I needed to get out of myself,” he said.
So he came out. He wanted to put a human face on people with mental illness, to show that most people struggling with it are not shooting up kids in school. They’re your neighbors, your friends, people you work with. So he wrote on a cardboard, “I have Borderline Personality Disorder and I am not ashamed,” and held it up in front of himself in the Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
A few people gave him hugs and a few others gave him dirty looks. Several gathered around to listen to him talk about his illness and ask questions. That planted the seeds for an activism he has since learned, through trial and error, is essential to his own sense of wellbeing.
So Trowbridge is onto something bigger now, a large-scale version of his one-man foray. He’s organizing a “coming out” day he calls Project I Am Not Ashamed. He’s inviting people with mental illness everywhere to set aside four hours on Aug. 18, to carry signs identifying their mental illness, with the “I am not ashamed” tagline and to areas with high foot traffic. The goal is to be seen, feel empowered and open up a public dialog about a little-understood subject. He hopes it gives both sides the chance to “face their fears.”
So far, he has confirmed participants in 18 states, 46 cities and five countries. He has done much of the networking through social media like Twitter, which has led to some meaningful connections with others struggling with BPD. After learning one woman in Wisconsin was planning suicide, he called the police and says they saved her. The event has a Facebook page and a website. Far from hiding, Trowbridge will appear on a billboard in Cedar Falls and a video promoting the event. Participants are asked to take selfies and post them.
One in five people has a mental illness in any given year, and the incidence is on the rise, according to Teresa Bomhoff, president of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) of Greater Des Moines. But only 4.2 percent of those have a severe case. Mentally ill people are no more violent than any other, Bomhoff says, and the occasional violent episodes among some are usually a psychotic event when they’re not on the right treatment, have been threatened or mocked. Of the 17,000 homicides committed each year, only 5 percent or fewer of the perpetrators have a mental illness, she said.
Some mental illnesses are more visible than others. Depression is one, as is anorexia. Bomhoff says in our lifetimes, about half of us will experience some problem coping, possibly requiring medication. About 90 percent of people who commit suicide are experiencing mental illness, she said.
With the proper treatment, mental illnesses can be managed well 60 to 70 percent of the time, Bomhoff says.
I asked Huff if she supports Trowbridge’s plan or fears that being so visible with his illness could lead to discrimination against him. She’s 100 percent behind it. “In his case, he has dealt with the stigma long enough that he has nothing to lose,” she said. “He’s empowered by helping people find a voice.” In fact, she says he’s grown more confident and purposeful, going “from paralyzed to job-searching like you can’t believe.”
The more community members who “see people marching and talking,” Huff said, “the more they’ll see, ‘My friend has mental illness.’ ” She goes ever farther, saying “If we don’t have more people like Ross, we’ll have more violent crime, more hospitalization and insurance rates will go up.”
He plans to make it an annual event.
The beauty of the idea is its simplicity: No infrastructure is needed. There are no big-name speakers to be booked or political candidacies to be boosted. It’s about authentic person-to-person contact. By reaching out to others to defuse their fears and prejudices, you might save yourself.
(Rekha Basu is an opinion columnist for The Des Moines Register).