From Coping to Empowered: Mental Health and the Community

Last week was the Techstars Boulder Startup Week Brain Crawl, where I was given the role of introducing the Brain Health Conversation with Jerry Colonna and Brad Feld.

This was also a huge moment for me as I unveiled Sigmend’s OPEN Labs to an audience full of the people who have helped me the most on my own journey.

Under different circumstances, it could have been a very nerve racking task, but after having part one of this series viewed by a few hundred thousand people thanks to Brad, Techstars and Mattermark, I had a different feeling as I took the stage.

So what’s changed? What allows me to stand on stage talking about my disorder with pride and excitement instead of nervousness?

Let’s rewind a few days… As prep for my introduction speech, I listened to the dozens of talks Brad and Jerry have given on brain health. Each time, they were impressively vulnerable and real with the audience. They addressed the hard stuff, gave compassionate answers and told authentic stories. I came into the conversation on Wednesday thinking that this talk would be impressive in a similar manner as their past talks, but it wasn’t.

There was something apparently different. The same shift that has happened in my personal experience is occurring in the community. As Brad and Jerry took questions from the crowd I heard something new.

I heard words like ‘compassion’, ‘cultural shifts’, and ‘viral spreading’ in place of words like ‘I’m coping’, ‘negative response’, and ‘ashamed of myself’.

It felt like a far cry from the mournful and serious voices I’ve heard in the past, which leads me to believe that we are beginning to discover that this topic is one of hope and excitement.

That’s why I was so excited. Brain health has traditionally been a pretty sad and somber topic, but there is a shift taking place. I no longer worry, “what if people don’t respond to my hopeful introduction?” or “what if the audience doesn’t believe that people living successfully with brain disorders aren’t a dime a dozen? What if they don’t know that people impacted by brain disorders can actually be close to 20 percent of the room, especially in tech?

People in that room (and I know outside of it too) believe in the hopeful future of brain disorders. I could hear it in their questions and saw it in their responses. 50 percent of the audience texted in asking to sign up for a spot to attend the OPEN Summit (the kickoff event for OPEN Labs) and another dozen wanted to get involved by dedicating to a loved one or sponsoring the Summit.

My point is this: thanks to the work of people like Jerry, Brad, and our other speakers Amy Reichlin, Faith Cohen, and Impact Founder, people are ready. The next step is to take this community’s latent energy and activate it. We can’t do this without a community, without a movement of people who can make that change happen.

I’ll say it again: there are a lot of confusing things about this disorder, but one thing that is absolutely true is that a supportive community is vital to recovery.

We have a supportive community beginning within the startup ecosystem, but now it’s time to harness that into something bigger. It’s time to join a movement to take this supportive community from talk into action.

So, to everyone who attended the crawl, joined the movement to change the conversation, and applied to the Summit (and helped me calm my nerves!), from the bottom of my heart, thank you. To everyone else, if you are living successfully and can share your experiences with your peers, have a loved one who has been impacted, or want to express your support to your employees, partners, and friends, attend, sponsor, or dedicate to the Summit.                       

We don’t have to wait until events like the Brain Crawl to have hopeful conversations. The OPEN Summit will bring thought leaders, experts and individuals who have been impacted anywhere on the spectrum of bipolar disorder to lay the foundation for OPEN Labs: A think tank and support group for brain disorders by those who know them best. OPEN Labs will ensure that these conversations, support, and real action continue to activate the latent energy of those who want to help.

Watch the Brain Crawl video here.

This was originally published on Medium.

The Vital Role of Community in Mental Health Support

If you would have told me 10 years ago that I would be writing a post discussing my Bipolar disorder for my friends, coworkers, and entire community to see, I wouldn’t have believed you. Thanks to the hard work of my local community in Boulder and Denver, I am not only comfortable writing this post, I am proud.

I am grateful to my community for not labeling me as the ‘crazy guy.’ On the contrary, you’ve embraced me.

You welcomed me back to recovery with open arms and open conversations during Denver Startup Week, you encouraged me while I spoke about my disorder during lightning talks at Galvanize, and not only did you support me through my ups and downs during the Techstars 2016 program, you brought together an entire class to join me.

Now, I am proud to be that little voice saying, ‘hey, you really are not alone’ to entrepreneurs, who are two times as likely to be impacted by a brain (mental) illness. This creative, inspiring, and often ‘crazy’ community has been given a set of gifts that are sometimes accompanied by illness. But as a suicide survivor with a Bipolar disorder, I know that we don’t have to fear these illnesses. We can learn to manage them and thrive (and sometimes even outperform our neurotypical peers 🙂 )

Although thriving is possible, it isn’t the norm. Despite the over 80 percent effective treatments for brain illness, our community has lost lives over the past year because people were afraid to ask for help.

The problem is less about the disorder and more about the way we handle it. I believe we can change this and make thriving the norm.

We have something special here in Boulder, something that gives us a leg up. We have leaders speaking up about their own struggles, we support each other in difficult times, and we #GiveFirst.

Of course you already know that, because you are the community who helped teach me that in the first place. Well, I’m counting on you to do it again, and to help set an example for other communities. This time not just for me, but for all of us who live with a brain disorder.

I’ve been given a chance that not many with a Bipolar disorder have. With access to the very best of treatment and training for my brain disorder, I have something equivalent to an unofficial PhD in recovery, and now I get to work with leaders and experts in the field every day.

The one thing I know to be absolutely true is that a supportive community is vital to recovery.

In celebration of Mental Health Month, we are celebrating that community, and how the conversation is changing from one of tragedy to one of hope and success. Join us on Wednesday, May 17th for an event during Boulder Startup Week to talk about the brighter side of brain health.

We can build a place where we live openly and thrive with hope for our future, but we can’t do it without you. So come learn new things, show your support, and crawl with us (RSVP here)!

Techstars put together a list of resources for anyone who thinks they may be suffering from mental health issues, or anyone who wants to learn more about the topic. You can find them here. 

A big thank you to Dave Mayer for paving the way with the Mental Health in the Startup Realm Panel during Boulder Startup Week 2016 alongside Kevin Owocki, Tom Higley, Sarah Jane Coffey, and Brad Feld. An even bigger thank you to the 350+ people who RSVP’d to learn about brain health.

Join us on 5/25 for a live, interactive AMA to hear more about this important topic and how we can all help out in our communities. We’ll be joined by Brad Feld, Managing Director at Foundry Group, and co-founder of Techstars. Register here

This was originally published here.