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Reducing the Stigma: a personal story of how laughter and music have allowed me to talk openly about mental health

5/22/2013 8:00:00 AM
Written By:
Bryan Sanderson

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004. I stopped taking my prescribed medication and went through a psychotic episode that lasted more than a year. Unfortunately, while not in my right mind, I committed crimes that were highly publicized both in the newspapers and on TV. I spent time in jail and was committed to Central State Mental Hospital for a total of 21 months.

Thankfully the courts found me not guilty by reason of insanity (NGRI). I was granted a "Conditional Release" and began receiving services at Colonial Behavioral Health (CBH) who helped provide me with housing. As part of my treatment with CBH, I attended People's Place for approximately 16 months. People's Place is a recovery-based clubhouse day support program where adults with mental illness go for peer support and to learn life skills.

After two years of Conditional Release the Courts granted me an unconditional release on December 10, 2009. Since then I have been using my story to help others better understand mental illness.

Through my experience, I learned that many people I had known for years were aware of my illness and crimes but didn't seem to know what to say when we ran into each other. Because of my previous professional work as a comedian, I found that people felt more comfortable with me and my mental health disorder if I used humor to break the ice.

So I joined the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) after being released from the hospital and began facilitating consumer support groups. I've learned that humor is well received with all of my friends at NAMI. I believe everyone likes to laugh and laughter helps some people feel more comfortable communicating with someone who has a mental illness. It's my experience that humor is one thing that breaks through the "uncomfortable barrier."

Another way I have used humor is when I speak with first responders, mostly law enforcement personnel, in Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings. I have helped with dozens of CIT trainings throughout Virginia since 2008. Having worked the streets as a firefighter/paramedic for more than 20 years, I relate to some of the challenges that first responders encounter on a daily basis. I have found that humor helps me to educate people on topics like hearing voices, visual hallucinations and aggressive behavior all of which I experienced during my psychotic episode. I often tell people it's much more fun to laugh rather than to cry. I believe laughter has a therapeutic effect similar to music.

While at Central State Hospital I noticed that many people who were having symptoms of mental illness like pacing or rocking back and forth and talking to themselves would benefit from listening to music on a Walkman radio. I witnessed many of these symptoms get better or in some cases cease while they were listening to music. I like listening to K-LOVE Radio www.klove.com. Their slogan is "Positive, Encouraging K-LOVE" I also like the fact that they have Pastors on staff available 24 hours a day to provide prayer for listeners at no cost. Their music always seems to put a smile on my face.

I have continued to work with NAMI advocating for people who live with mental illness in the community and at the legislative level through the General Assembly. My story helps to educate people about challenges that people who suffer with mental illness face in and out of the correctional system. The Bible says, "Love your neighbor as yourself" (John 13:34). My goal is help as many people as I can through as many avenues as I can. I plan to continue telling my story to help CIT, NAMI and the people I visit at Eastern State Hospital.

A former firefighter/paramedic with 20 years of experience, in 2001 Bryan appeared on ABC's "The View" with Barbara Walters as one of the funniest firefighters in America. Bryan has worked in emergency services for most of his life and several years ago was recognized by his community for assisting in the arrest of bank robbery suspects fleeing the Williamsburg area. Bryan is on the Board of Directors for the Williamsburg Area National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) and has spoken at many Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) trainings throughout Virginia as well as CIT International Conferences. He is a tireless advocate promoting the CIT programs throughout Virginia. Bryan has spoken to hundreds of Virginia's first responders, sharing his unique personal insights on the importance of understanding the plight of persons suffering with a mental illness.

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