We all want someone to understand us when we nervously admit to some quirky, obsessive habit or finally acknowledge that maybe we are not as happy as we seem. We all, at one time or another, have taken the risk of self-disclosure in the hopes that someone we relate to on so many other levels will respond with, “Oh yeah, me too.” This small, simple acknowledgement can have us breathing huge sighs of relief.
Yet, the reality for far too many young adults, ages 18 to 25, living with mental illness is that this kind of solace can be hard to come by. Local support groups, although valuable, often do not include their peers and when they Google “sexual dysfunction,” Viagra ads are more likely pop up rather than age-appropriate resources or people who understand the impact a mental health condition can have on sexuality.
The need for support and resources specifically geared toward young adults has been well-documented. The U.S. Government Accountability Office released a report in 2007, Young Adults with Serious Mental Illness: Some States and Federal Agencies Are Taking Steps to Address Their Transition Challenges, which showed that our nation has done a poor job of meeting the needs of young adults living with mental health conditions. This failure is happening despite the fact that the onset of severe mental health conditions often occurs during the transition-age years. This is also a time of a high incidence of suicide, the third leading cause of death for young people ages 15 to 24.
The time is long overdue for us to reach out to young adults who feel socially isolated because of their mental health condition and their inability to access effective and relevant services and supports.
This led NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, to develop StrengthofUs.org, an online resource center and user-driven social networking Web site for young adults living with mental health conditions. We worked with a great group of young adults in designing the site and developing the resources.
As project manager and a young adult myself, I had the great fortune of meeting many inspiring, candid and empathetic young adults while developing and eventually participating in StrengthofUs.org.
The site is growing rapidly with young adults opening their lives, minds and hearts to help others by sharing their personal stories, providing mutual support and offering friendship to those in need of a listening ear.
Their stories reflect an amazing amount of resiliency in the face of adversity. One young adult describes how filmmaking saved his life during a time he was battling severe depression, another talks about taking charge of his life after experiencing delusional thinking and paranoia and yet another discusses making it to Harvard after overcoming debilitating Anxiety. These stories are only a snapshot of the amazing young adults who are on the site to offer lessons learned, hope and encouragement to others whose lives have been impacted by a mental health issue in one way or another.
StrengthofUs.org users are connecting with peers by sharing their personal stories, creativity and helpful resources by creating profiles, writing and responding to blog entries, posting to “The Wire,” a Twitter-like feature, engaging in discussion groups and chats and sharing videos, photos and other media. The blogs and The Wire have fast become the most popular areas on the site. The site also allows users to express themselves creatively by posting their original music, poetry, photographs and other artistic endeavors.
Young adults can access relevant resources on and talk about the issues that matter most to them, including dating, making friends, doing well in school, living independently, achieving goals, maintaining weight, defining morality, overcoming negative thoughts, finding strength and happiness and more. These are issues we all explore in our lives at one time or another, but StrengthofUs.org enables young adults to bond and connect over these topics rather than have to deal with them alone—it’s about strength in numbers so to say.
Some of the most popular resources young adults have downloaded include Finding Your Strength, A Sample Budget, Setting and Achieving Goals, Express Yourself: Assessing Self-Determination in Your Life, Identifying Mood Triggers, Seeking Employment: What You Need to Know and Campus Mental Health.
Young adults also chat about lighter issues in life like T.V. shows, movies, sports teams, cars and other pop culture topics. The site is whatever users make it—they can delve into personal issues or just enjoy connecting with others with similar interests.
StrengthofUs.org offers great insight into the lived experience of young adults: their excitement, fears, frustrations, hopes, goals, courage and their determination to be more than their mental health condition.
The over 600 talented, compassionate and thoughtful young adults on StrengthofUs.org are just the kind of people most of us hope to meet in our lives. They are quick to offer hope, strength and virtual hugs when others are having a bad day and to celebrate with those having a good day. If there is one thing you can take from StrengthofUs.org, it is that clichéd, yet ever so comforting reminder that you are indeed not alone.