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What is it like to have a mental health disability?

If you suddenly found yourself disabled for mental health reasons, what would it be like? It isn't that far-fetched since, according to the National Alliance For Mental Illness, "Millions of Americans receive Social Security Disability Benefits each year, and each year more than 2.5 million new applications are filed."

While everyone's experience is different, here are a few examples.

For some, disability is a complete change from the past. Here is what one person said: "I was doing well in a full-time job as a systems analyst. When my wife and I divorced, I went into a deep depression. I was living alone, and things just got worse. I was ashamed that I couldn't go to work, and was increasingly suicidal. I spent a lot of years in hospitals until they found a medication that worked for me. After exhausting my savings, I applied for disability - difficult to do after working all those years."

For other individuals, disability starts early. Signs of mental health issues may appear during childhood. The illness may worsen during the teens, and hospitalization may be required then, or in adulthood.

"I've been on SSI (Social Security Income) my whole life. I don't want to live that way. If I could have a $30,000 job, I would."

This individual now works part-time, with SSI as the primary financial support.

Having a mental health disability often means having to be resilient as one learns to work around the loss of job, dependence on others who may not be knowledgeable about mental health disabilities, lack of or limited transportation and having to go to multiple agencies to get one's needs met.

"It's not easy living with depression and learning disabilities. No one understands. They try, but they haven't walked in my shoes. I can talk, walk, run, write like anyone else."

For some, the disability brings out one's creativity and activity.

"On my good days, I get a lot done. I'm happy with the world. I enjoy doing things again...I look forward to fulfilling my dreams now."

Many painters, writers, musicians, actors/actresses in history have had bipolar disorder, for example, such as Patty Duke, Jim Carrey, Axl Rose, Connie Francis, Charley Pride, Sylvia Plath, John Berryman, DMX. While they have been able to work, it has often disabled them for long periods of time.

"I love the energy it gives me. I get my best ideas when I'm on a bipolar high. I'm a painter and I've sold a number of paintings I made during my illness. I have to be careful, because without medications I can get way too high - and end up in the hospital again."

Having a mental health disability can open new opportunities. Being resilient, creative, understanding of difficulties can develop into leadership roles. Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe depression, yet led the country during the Civil War. The theories of John Forbes Nash Jr., described in "A Beautiful Mind," have led the way in market economics, artificial intelligence and biology.

As one local person noted, "Don't be scared of people with mental health disabilities. These disabilities are physical diseases, not just something you can pull yourself up out of. Most people with mental health issues actually work in the community."

While it may mean a different turn, and sometimes major adjustments, a mental health disability can turn out to be an asset, making one resilient, creative, empathetic, and able to give back to one's community in new ways.

Robin Wold is executive director of Hope House in Bemidji.