Each day I walk up to complete strangers and I talk with them. I met a group of people at an improv theatre who engaged me with this project. They told me the main tenet of improv is to “follow the fear.” On the other side of this fear is where you will find all the magic. And that magic is healing me and changing my life.
As part of my mental health champions interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ron Blake. Ron lives in downtown Phoenix, AZ, and has been married to a wonderful husband for two years. Blake was born and raised in the Indiana suburbs of Chicago. His parents, Ron and Rita, are retired educators with 60 years of experience between them. They still live back in that area. Ron has a sister Kris who lives in San Diego and three brothers: Scott, Matt, and Mark who live with their families back in Chicagoland. Blake has an MPA from Indiana University and has run five marathons and dozens of half-marathons and 5K races. Among the many jobs he’s worked: he has been a high school physics teacher, a city councilman, and had a fascinating experience as a courier for Sandra Bullock. Additionally, Ron lived in San Diego, Los Angeles, and in the quaint countryside of England.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
It really was something as simple as that moment of laughter on a suicidal night that began my path as a mental health activist. I decided to burn the ships and head out to reach a symbolic goal using the power of that laughter.
Comedy is not the absence of trauma. It is the ability to take our traumas and find a way to still laugh. I’ve been using that expression to guide me and the strangers I meet on this interesting and very different path each day. Laughter began it all.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
Mental illness is looked at as a private matter. So people feel they should not openly discuss their condition. It is viewed as something to keep to yourself. Silence is dangerous to these conditions. Healing and recovery are not likely to be achieved by silence. It’s like treating cancer without chemotherapy or radiation.
I am working hard to change that with this project. I talk very openly about my condition. Vulnerability begets vulnerability. That is very helpful for healing.
There is also still a fear that people will be labeled. I will give an example.
I gave a speech on my journey to 1,000 people at an annual popular sold-out event. I received a standing ovation from this big audience. The reason was simply that the people they’re connected to the title of my speech and the very last words I said on that stage: “I’m More Than PTSD.”
I said in that presentation that I meet people. I do not meet bi-polar. I do not meet an anxiety disorder. I do not meet depression. I meet firefighters. I meet teachers. I meet engineers. And the audience members cheered furiously. They all agreed. We are not labels. We are more than our diagnosis. That is so very important.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I use spontaneity and simplicity on this journey to open up dialogues about mental illness. That is helping to take away that stigma with mental illness.
On the way to reaching this very symbolic goal, I’ve met all these strangers and have engaged in this project for eight hours each day for all 1,202 days (and still going). These people listen to my story of PTSD and depression. And so very often they open up to me and talk about how they have been impacted by mental illness.
People will usually not talk with their close friends and family about their struggles with mental illness for fear they will be judged. That is not the case with a total stranger as psychologists have let me know. I am that complete stranger and people are opening up a lot to me on this journey.
They have been sharing their stories with me on 428 giant foam poster boards. I’ve now met 28,051 people who have written their stories in 89 languages and with 27 Sharpie marker colors on the 3,500 square feet of boards.
It continues to create artwork that is so powerful. It is erasing the stigma one message at a time. The huge visual display helps people see they are not alone in their issues with mental illness.
It is indeed so magical to see the boards. People want to feel they are a part of something more than just themselves. And this artwork lets them be part of that something bigger that shows we’re all in this together.
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
One night I had been asleep and sick in my bed in my downtown Phoenix home. On that evening, three men entered my home. I was held down and sexually assaulted. I almost lost my life before the police arrived.
I subsequently was diagnosed with PTSD and depression and was in and out of suicidal thoughts frequently. I had nightmares often. And I became dependent on sleeping pills. I was also on pain meds for the injuries I sustained from the attack.
I struggled badly with the PTSD and depression for such a long time. I did not feel I had a quality of life anymore. And I did not want my family and friends to see me struggle like I was.
On November 2, 2015, I had all my pain pills on my lap. I was ready to die by suicide.
A moment of laughter on this evening changed it all for me.
The Late Show with Stephen Colbert came on my TV. I recognized that I laughed and I paused the show. I sat quietly and reflected for a few minutes. I did not take the pills.
It was then that I realized these three men had truly not taken everything from me in that rape. I still had laughter. If even only that laughter. And I decided I would use that laughter and build out from that.
It felt like that laughter from that show was a sign sent by God or the universe. It was not my time yet. I was going to find a way to get on The Late Show and share my story of mental illness, laughter, and hope.
Thus began this now 1,202 day quixotic cross country journey of hope, support, and awareness for mental illness. I have now spent nearly 10,000 hours personally meeting 28,051 complete strangers and collecting their written and verbal stories of how they have been impacted by mental illness.
The big goal is to someday deliver all those tens of thousands of messages of hope and support to Stephen Colbert on his show. And to share with him this amazing and massive collective journey of recovery from mental illness and sexual assault. I share this journey on BlakeLateShow.com.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
The best way to support people struggling with mental illness is to simply continue to encourage more people to open up discussions about mental illness. It applies to all three categories: individuals, society, and government.
It would be amazing for example if many elected officials and leaders would publicly share a story of overcoming mental illness. It would be equally amazing if kids, parents, teachers, and other members of society felt they could simply talk about their mental health issues. And they can.
Stigma exists because of darkness. Once we all put more light on mental illness, it no longer has that power over us. We can bring our stories out of the darkness. And take the power away from the diagnoses and give that power back to the people.
I have now watched 28,051 complete strangers shine a light on our collective struggles during this extensive journey. We have created a stunning visual representation of this talk therapy. And that is awesome!
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I address these six strategies in a TEDx talk I gave. It has a most unusual title: Strangers, Hope, and Sharpie Markers Saved My Life.
1 Stay connected. I have gone up to lots and lots of beautiful strangers every day now for the last 1,202 days and engaged with strangers. It keeps me connected to life. It lessens the likelihood of me feeling so alone and depressed. I feel great energy from everyone I meet.
2 Keep it spontaneous. It’s more than OK to not know where I am going to meet strangers on any given day. I believe traumas are so difficult for us to deal with because we have so much of our lives structured. Traumas aren’t detours. They are part of our journey.
3 Overcome fear. Each day I walk up to complete strangers and I talk with them. I met a group of people at an improv theatre who engaged me with this project. They told me the main tenet of improv is to “follow the fear.” On the other side of this fear is where you will find all the magic. And that magic is healing me and changing my life.
4 Exercise. We all know this is so good to do. So I do it. And a lot of it. Some days I go out meeting strangers for 10 to 12 hours per day. So many people diagnosed with mental illness will stay in their homes. Getting out and moving has been such good therapy for me. I estimate I’ve walked 7,500 miles on this journey.
5 Vulnerability. I’ve shared my story of mental illness with those 28,051 strangers. And those people have all shared something back with me. You truly understand that you are not the only one going through a struggle. It’s been amazing what being vulnerable has done for my well-being.
6 Have a purpose. I have a purpose now. That moment of laughter on that suicidal night let me see life in a completely new way. I’m going to be a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Someday. Somehow.
And I’m going to share this massive collective story of hope and support with millions of people. All 28,051 stories. And I’m going to let people see they are not alone and that we go through it all together. We are all so much more than our diagnoses. Mental illness does not define us.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
The greatest resource that inspires me to be a mental health champion each day is…the people I continue to meet. One stranger at a time. Un dia a la vez!
This is more effective than any podcast. More effective than any book. The power of one human being walking up to another human being. And starting a dialogue about mental illness. And opening up with each other and being vulnerable. And realizing our great ability to be stronger than our diagnoses.
People simply talking with other people. Such a lost art. Such a great medicine.
We all have the ability to be this mental health champion by doing this.