Spread the Love to End the Stigma: Q and A with Nicole Vana
Written by Nicole Vana
DA: When did you begin as a mental health advocate? Why did you begin?
NV: I became a mental health advocate at the age of 18. My Twitter account, Spread the Love, is what turned me into one. It is pretty ironic because prior to me becoming a mental health advocate, I didn’t even know what a mental illness was. This shows the lack of attention mental health gets in our society and in our schools. I decided to become an advocate after I struggled with mental illness and suicide myself. I also had some really good friends in high school who struggled with mental illness and throughout the years, I’ve had classmates who’ve taken their own life. It’s one thing to see people from around the world struggle from with these issues, but when they start to affect the people in your life and directly in around your own community, it pushes motivates you to continue to speak out about the issue and do whatever you can to prevent more of your loved ones from being affected. I also believe that these are topics that need attention brought to them and they are things that society needs to start standing up for and talking about because if we don’t do this, they’ll only get worse in the future.
DA: You mentioned struggling with mental illness and suicide in the past. How did you communicate these struggles and who did you speak to about them?
NV: Yes, I was diagnosed with depression at 17 and I’ve struggled with anxiety, an eating disorder, and self-harm. The first person I ever confided in was one of my close friends and teammates in high school. I remember I called her on the phone and we talked for almost three hours. I told her all about my thoughts, problems, and struggles I had encountered throughout the years that I had held in and we both cried bottled up and we both started crying. She told her parents about the things I was going through and they told my parents who eventually took me to the doctor where I was diagnosed, given medication, and I began counseling. I’ve always been the type of person who hates opening up to others so talking about my mental health challenges has been extremely hard for me but it’s become easier over the years as my movement has grown and I’ve received more support. I have also learned that sharing my experiences not only allows me to help others, it also encourages others to speak up about their challenges and struggles. The more we start talking about these problems instead of hiding them, the more the stigma around mental illness fades and the more likely people will be to reach out for help.
DA: What do you see as the biggest challenges in changing the conversation about mental health?
NV: Lack of education, for sure. The biggest reason as to why so many people stigmatize, mock, and joke about mental health is because they lack education on the topic. Our country requires endless amounts of physical education, health, and nutrition courses to help maintain and improve our physical health but there are hardly, if any, courses to help maintain and improve our mental health In addition, many people, like myself at one point, don’t even know what a mental illness is. It’s hard to get society as a whole to realize that mental health is just as important as physical health when people don’t know enough. It’s also very difficult to simply just change society’s views and beliefs and that’s why it’s so important for me and all of the other advocates out there to reach out to as many people as possible and to educate them.
DA: I agree there are some big challenges. Where would you say you see the great opportunity to change society’s perspective on mental health?
NV: I think that changing the conversation of mental health will make this world a happier place. There are so many people silently suffering, like the people right beside us who we’d never expect to suffer from a mental illness. If we started to change the conversation about mental health and ended the stigma, people wouldn’t be ashamed to reach out for help and they wouldn’t have to suffer in silence anymore. Everyone deserves to live a happy and awesome life and I think that changing the conversation of mental health would allow people that opportunity.
DA: What ways do you think could change the global conversation about mental health?
NV: I think that when people realizing that they aren’t the only ones struggling through this and that isolating aspect is removed, change can happen . could change it. It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, or what type of life you have, mental health affects us all. It’s really important for us to start standing together and make it a global initiative as an entire world to fix these issues. I used to feel like I was the only one who felt how I did and now I’m starting to see celebrities like Justin Bieber speak up about struggles with their mental health and it really reminds you that nobody is immune. We’re all human and we’re all just trying to live in this world. It’s not an easy place to live in.
DA: How does the Internet affect the global conversation about mental health, and how has it helped you through your activism?
NV: The Internet has made it very possible for people to reach out to others from around the world regarding issues like mental health. It’s an extremely powerful tool and, if used right, it can completely change the conversation of mental health. It’s helped me significantly because it allows me to reach out to individuals who are struggling, no matter how many miles away, and remind them that they’re not alone. It has also allowed me to grow start a community with the goal of to start educating more and more people. The more lives that important mental health movements, such as the Depression Army and I, can reach out to, the more we can inform and educate, and ultimately, the more we can lessen stigma and save lives.
DA: I know you are excited about MY Pals. Tell us about it.
NV: For over a year now, I’ve wanted to create a mental health app because I see so many mental health advocates out on Twitter (which is awesome), but I wanted to do something different. I decided to use my own experiences with mental illness and suicide and things that helped me get through my darkest days and put it all into one app. Spread the Love originally started off as an anonymous vent account when I was very depressed and suicidal. I used it to tweet out my honest feelings and talk to others who were going through the same things as me and although most of these people were thousands of miles away, I felt that they understood me more than my own parents or my best friends or even my counselor. I wanted to create an entire world like this for others. My Pals is for people struggling with mental illness, suicidal thoughts, bullying, or for anyone who just needs some friends or someone to talk to. The app will allow users to reach out to people who are going through the same struggles as them. The app also has specific in-app features that allow users to get professional help when they decide they want to get it.
DA: If people are interested in My Pals, how can they support it? Is there a link where people can have access to it?
NV: I’m currently developing it. You can support it by donating to my Kickstarter for the app that goes until May 14. Although I’ve hit my goal, the app will cost much more. I ask that anyone who can please donate and help out. I’m a student-athlete in college and I don’t have much time or money to make it on my own. You can donate here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1660765962/my-pals-app . If you want the latest updates on the app, including when it will be launched, follow the official Twitter: www.twitter.com/MyPalsApp !
DA: Do you have any other messages for the Depression Army?
NV: Mental illness and suicide sucks and the way that society treats these issues suck even more, but together we can all change the conversation and we can all change the world. Not one person will be able to do it. We all need to stand together and get educated on these issues. If you’re someone who is struggling, keep fighting. I know it’s very cliché but I was someone who never thought I’d even be alive 2 ½ years ago but I can tell you from experience that fighting through it and being alive now is the best thing that’s ever happened. Life is hard but people love you and there is support out there for you. If you ever need someone to talk to, I’m available. Direct message me on my account - www.twitter.com/Spreading_L0ve . <3