"Too often, people hide their diagnosis for fear of being treated differently. I wanted to break down that stigma."

Bob Harper

When I was 26, my college sweetheart and I were happily married, and I had a successful career as a recruiter. Yet during one stressful week, I only slept three hours and began exhibiting signs of mania, talking very fast and not connecting my thoughts. I was also having hallucinations.

A psychiatrist attributed it to sleep deprivation and stress. But a week later, the entire event repeated itself. I landed in a psychiatric hospital, where I learned I had bipolar disorder.

Read more stories about innovative and inspirational women, check out our Wellness Warriors series

At first, I felt completely alone. I wasn’t close to anyone who’d gone through mental illness. Not until I found people writing online about their experiences did I realize,“It’s not a death sentence.” Maybe living with a diagnosis could even be an opportunity for growth.

By then I had my two children, so I started a blog about life as a bipolar mom so other mothers could hear my story. Writing about coming to terms with my condition was therapeutic for me. And once I felt comfortable enough to reveal my identity, I was flooded with emails, calls, texts, and hugs.

RELATED: 10 Subtle Signs of Bipolar Disorder

I couldn’t have predicted how many people would tell me their own stories about dealing with a mental health issue. I realized that when one person shares, she gives others permission to do the same. Too often, people hide their diagnosis for fear of being treated differently. I wanted to break down that stigma.

In 2014, a friend and I launched a Kickstarter for This Is My Brave, a live presentation of personal essays, music, dance, poetry, and comedy performed by people living with, or loving someone with, a mental illness. Within 31 days, we raised more than $10,000 for our first (sold-out) show. 

RELATED: 7 Women on What It’s Really Like to Live With Bipolar Disorder

Today, This Is My Brave holds shows across the U.S., as well as Australia. We also recently launched high school and college programs.

I’m proud of every person who’s stood on one of our stages. We can’t end the stigma surrounding mental illness until we put names and faces to them. That’s what This Is My Brave is doing: shining a light on these stories, one person at a time.

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