An Essay by Inside Our Minds Founder, Alyssa Cypher
Inside Our Minds is an anonymous and uncensored interview project working to share the stories of people affected by mental illness in the Pittsburgh area. Through sharing participant stories, Inside Our Minds hopes to inspire open discussion about mental illness and foster connection among members of our community.
When I am out conducting interviews, I often get asked the same question by Inside Our Minds participants: “What drove you to start Inside Our Minds?” And honestly, I always give the same answer: the connection. Connection is key in our community, where individuals are far too often driven to suffer in silence due to the stigma of having a mental illness. That stigma is strong and suffocating, and it continues to control many lives. We fear the consequences of “outing” ourselves, whether it’s job loss or demotion, isolation from friends and family, bullying or public ridicule, association to mass shootings, even violence or assault.
As someone who has lived with mental illness since childhood, I am intimate with the absolute isolation that comes from hiding in plain sight. Hiding was a burden that affected all aspects of my life, especially my ability to connect with others. I became an expert at masking my symptoms and convincing friends, teachers, and family members that I was fine. I was so good at hiding that I denied myself proper mental health treatment, because I couldn’t even open up to my therapists and psychiatrists. It wasn’t until graduate school that I finally felt compelled to let go of my fears and share my story publicly. I posted about my struggles with mental illness on my Facebook page for everyone to see.
I felt free. My symptoms weren’t better, and my trauma still existed, but I felt a tangible rush of relief. It was a truly amazing experience, and this moment inspired me to create Inside Our Minds. When I interview participants, I can see these same emotions on their faces. I can see the relief of finally sharing their story, and the connection that comes from having someone listen to their deepest secrets and “shameful” symptoms without judgment. I want to use Inside Our Minds to share this experience with as many people as possible.
Most importantly, my experience with mental illness dictates how I run Inside Our Minds. Interviews are always completely participant-focused from start to finish. I use an unstructured interviewing technique, which is more like a guided conversation than a formal interview. We laugh and joke, maybe cry, and bond quickly. I usually chat for a while and share my experiences with each participant before officially starting the interview, which helps to ease any anxieties or tension associated with sharing such personal stories. Several times after finishing an interview, participants have told me it’s the first time they’ve ever shared their story. I feel honored every time. What I’ve found is that people are willing and even excited to share their stories for the first time, especially in-person. To have someone look you in the eye and listen to your story is incredibly validating. I consider this experience to be one of the major perks of running Inside Our Minds, one that happens even before the interview is transcribed, edited, and posted for the public.
My experience with mental illness also influences how I care for participant stories. I make sure that participants retain ownership and control over their story while remaining anonymous. After transcribing the interviews and removing all personally identifiable information, I share the unpublished interview with the participant and allow them full control over editing. This ownership extends even after the interview is published, so participants know they can always change, edit, add to, or completely remove their interview without explanation. This way, their story is always their story, even in my hands. I’m looking forward to watching Inside Our Minds grow as I connect with more people and represent more diverse populations. Together we can help to educate our community about mental illness and inspire others to share their stories!
Interested in learning more about Inside Our Minds? Read stories from your community at www.insideourminds.org, and follow our Facebook and Twitter accounts for updates. Also, Inside Our Minds is always looking for new participants! Get in touch with Alyssa Cypher at www.insideourminds.org/contact to discuss setting up an interview.