“In a way, I feel as if we were the original ‘Me, Too’ movement,” says founder Jennifer Marshall.
What does bravery look like? For those struggling with a mental illness, it can be as simple as attaching their name to their story, and a non-profit organization called This Is My Brave (TIMB) is helping people do that by bringing individuals living with mental illness together to share their stories of struggle and healing with a live audience.
Co-founded by Jennifer Marshall and Anne Marie Ames in 2013, This Is My Brave showcases the creative talents of individuals with mental health issues to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness. Although Ames tragically passed away this past fall, Jennifer continues to carry on the important work of the organization – which has now put on 45 shows across the United States and Australia.
The shows are a huge success wherever they’re held – much like the first show, which Jennifer and Anne Marie put on after launching a $6,500 Kickstarter campaign (before the organization had achieved its official non-profit status), raising more than $10,000 and resulting in a sold-out show in a 400+ seat theater.
One of the inspirations for TIMB came when Jennifer, who had been running a successful and anonymous blog about being a mom with bipolar disorder (BipolarMomLife), made the decision to begin using her name to share her story. When Jennifer’s first piece was published with her real name on the homepage for AOL, she was shocked by the response. “I had a flood of emails from people who had read it, and people were coming up to me in the pickup line at school and telling me ‘I saw the piece – thank you so much for writing it!’ It made me realize that there was a real need for a platform and a safe environment for more people to retell the story of their own struggles with mental illness – and also to teach others what they’ve been able to accomplish through their mental illness.” Not long after, Jennifer and Anne Marie connected, and the idea for TIMB was born.
Now, almost five years later, This Is My Brave shows have been hosted in cities across the country, and 80 to 90 percent of them are completely run by volunteers eager to bring the show to their own communities. “We hardly ever advertise,” says Jennifer. “People hear about the show, or see a video of it on our YouTube channel, and they come to us asking us how to bring it to their own city.”
As a result, TIMB has trademarked their brand, and has crafted a tool kit for those looking to run a show in their own city. It provides guidance to volunteers (or, in 10 to 20 percent of the cases, a non-profit looking to use the show as a fundraising opportunity) to help bring the show to life. And while Jennifer was not able to attend all of the shows that were held last year due to scheduling issues, TIMB has made it a special mission this year to make sure she has a physical presence at all of the 2018 shows – and so far, she’s been able to do that.
Each show usually features about a dozen “cast members” who have auditioned to participate in the show to tell their story through some creative outlet – be it a song, an essay, a dance, a poem, a comedy routine, etc. Many cast members are former audience members. “The pieces are about the struggle with mental illness,” says Jennifer, “but most importantly, they’re also about the recovery. The takeaway is: ‘I’ve been through all of this, and I’m still here. If I can do it, you can do it, too.’”
“In a way, I feel as if we were the original ‘Me, Too’ movement,” says Jennifer. “Because for so many people who see our shows and hear the stories onstage, their reaction is ‘Wow, me too!’” Jennifer says that many people have come up to her afterward to tell her that the show changed – or even saved – their lives. She said it was especially gratifying when an audience participant in Philadelphia told her: “I get it, now. I have a much better understanding of what my loved one is dealing with.” After all, TIMB was founded with the mission of breaking down the stigma of mental illness, which often comes with better understanding of mental illness.
For Jennifer, TIMB is about building the recognition that “mental illness is just as much of an illness – although a very different one – as something like cancer is. So let’s acknowledge the struggles with dealing with mental illness, and the successes at overcoming them, in the same way.”
“One day,” says Jennifer, “We won’t have to call it ‘brave’ when we talk about our mental illness. We’ll just call it talking.”