Brianna N. Castro

GUEST COLUMN: The Illnesses You Can’t See

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and May 22 is NAMI Walks Your Way!

To the world it seems like I am fine, but inside I could be falling apart. Even though we have heard the saying hundreds of times, “don’t judge a book by its cover,” we still too often do.

As I sit here thinking about what my life has been like for the past 22 years, I can’t help but think back to when I was a seemingly normal 18-year-old, living my life. Then, from one day to the next, I wasn’t.

It has taken me the better part of two decades to understand it. I had no clue what mental health was until I was told I had mental health conditions that would probably be with me the rest of my life.

Knowing I had agoraphobia and panic disorder, I spent a very long time hiding, feeling that I was flawed, and unworthy. I kept my mental health challenges from the world for fear of being judged or made fun of.

It wasn’t until I stumbled upon an opportunity to talk about it to someone who actually listened and cared that things changed. I started a peer-led support group for people like myself, with the help of an amazing mentor and friend.

I learned about the National Alliance on Mental Illness, better known as NAMI, and what they do for those who live with these invisible conditions. I started learning more about myself, and my illnesses.

The more I learned the more I started to feel empowered. I wanted to do more, so I became a Peer & Family Support Specialist, and Certified Crisis Counselor.

Our support group grew and not only was I helping others, but myself as well. I no longer hid from the world, I began sharing my story with others, becoming a voice for the voiceless.

It became a passion, and it is now my mission to bring more mental health support, education, and advocacy to the Imperial Valley. We are a rural community with a lack of resources and knowledge about just how much our mental health can impact our lives. More needs to be done for our community especially now.

We were hit hard by COVID-19, and now we have a mental health crisis on our hands. Prior to the pandemic, one in five of us were living with a mental health condition. Now those numbers are more like one in three.

As a NAMI Connections support group facilitator, I have seen firsthand just how many people are struggling and in need of support. So now that we are starting to see a light at the end of this very dark tunnel, we must come together as a community and help one another, show empathy, and keep talking about the importance of mental health.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month and I am very excited because NAMI Walks Your Way is officially coming to Imperial County. You may not be aware, but NAMI San Diego & Imperial Valley is here locally working to provide support, education, and resources to the people. So, we hope that you will join us for this virtual event on May 22, to support mental health for all, and to help stop the stigma that surrounds mental illness.

Lastly, I want to say to my fellow mental health warriors, you aren’t alone, and the more we share our stories, the more we normalize them. So, keep sharing.

Brianna N. Castro of El Centro is a Peer & Family Support Specialist, Certified Crisis Counselor and National Alliance on Mental Illness Connections support group facilitator for NAMI San Diego & Imperial Valley. Notice the semicolon tattoo in Brianna’s photo; the punctuation mark has become the universal symbol for those who have struggled with and overcome mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, addition, suicide, and self-injury.

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