As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to normalize the focus on mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview a storyteller at heart who built a career in writing, media & marketing, Paolina Milana’s roots are entangled with mental illness — having been raised by a mother diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and later having to raise her younger sister, also diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Caregiving and Crazy have been part of her entire being; her first book THE S WORD: A MEMOIR ABOUT SECRETS published in 2015 and helped to shed some light on the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness. She is working on her next books: THE C WORD, and I’M WITH CRAZY: A LOVE STORY. Realizing how little has changed in the way of mental health, and how many more children and adults seem to be surrounded by madness, Paolina launched “Madness to Magic” — an effort to help others find the magic in whatever madness surrounds them — and also a podcast dedicated to those who love and care for people with a mental illness. Madness To Magic brings to light stories of real world encounters with what we all experience and yet feel shamed to keep silent. It is Paolina’s hope that her work helps to normalize the focus on mental wellness. This episode of her podcast — https://soundcloud.com/madness2magic/ep2-christmas-and-crazy — takes on the challenge; here’s an excerpt:
“My family — maybe YOUR family — will never be a Norman Rockwell portrait depicting an American day-in-the-life…but we ought to be. Every one of the two million people with schizophrenia, may have a mother, a father, grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles, spouses, significant others, children, and friends. Social commentary should include a snapshot of the millions of homes wherein madness resides along with mainstream normalcy. After all, part of us, all of us, is “crazy.” It’s all acceptable, even laughable, as long as the sum of the parts keeps you in society’s scope of the norm, far enough away from clinical insanity.”
Paolina Milana is an expert in strategic communications. With more than 15 years as a respected leader, her experience spans a variety of industries and environments including for-profit and nonprofit, B2B and B2C, startup and established. A masterful storyteller with a journalistic background, Paolina has helped build brands and bottom lines for organizations, including PR Newswire, Marketwired, YP, Northern Illinois University, The Lighthouse for The Blind, and St. Baldrick’s Foundation. She is a published author and award-winning writer. She currently works as a marketing, PR, and editorial consultant as well as a career transition coach. She also serves as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate) helping children navigate the foster care system. Find Paolina at PaolinaMilana.comor PaolinaMilanaWrites.com.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?
Madness has been tracking me or I it my entire life. My mother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia when I was a child. In the late 1980s, I was a guest on the Oprah show, given I was a caregiver kid trying to navigate crazy. When I was 26, I found myself having to commit my 24 year old sister to a psychiatric hospital. She, too, was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. I kept it all secret…and in the process nearly killed myself. My first book — a coming of age surrounded by crazy story THE S WORD — published in 2015. Here’s a piece I wrote for the Huffington Post — https://www.huffpost.com/entry/showtimes-shameless-ian-g_b_9508152
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 isn’t like having a broken bone. You can’t go to the hospital, get it set back in place, wear a cast for a while and be good as new or better. Crazy keeps coming. Even those who comply with their meds will need their levels constantly checked for when those very same meds no longer do the trick. Being diagnosed with a mental illness is a lifelong sentence without a cure OR an end. On top of all that, it’s still a “wild card” — not enough in the way of resources medically have been directed toward it. It still surprises me that the same meds and methods that were used on my mother decades ago are still pretty much the treatment today. It is scary and very isolating and in so many ways hopeless. And there’s blame each and every time a tragedy occurs. Where were the person’s parents? Why weren’t the “signs” noticed? Etc., etc. Who in their right mind would want to admit to either having such an unpredictable illness OR being associated with someone who has a mental health challenge? Few if any can truly understand it, unless you’re in it…and even then, you’re on your own because each case is different. I stuffed down everything that I was trying to navigate — managing both a mom and a sister diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia — ballooning to 365 pounds and feeling that there was no other way out than to end life for myself and them. We all don’t want to admit that we haven’t much control in this life and/or that we’re falling apart at times…and that is true when a major mental illness is NOT at play. Imagine what it’s like when it is. Our only references right now really are the homeless people who talk to themselves on the streets OR the ones who seems “so normal” until they decided to go on some shooting rampage….SOMETHING has to change.
Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?
I began telling my own story and exposing the “normal” of mental health issues — my first book THE S WORD: A MEMOIR ABOUT SECRETS published in 2015 and helped to shed some light on the stigma and shame surrounding mental illness. I am working on my next books: THE C WORD, and I’M WITH CRAZY: A LOVE STORY. I speak on the topic. I write on the topic. I launched “Madness to Magic” — an effort to help others find the magic in whatever madness surrounds them — and also a podcast dedicated to those who love and care for people with a mental illness. Madness To Magic brings to light stories of real world encounters with what we all experience and yet feel shamed to keep silent. This episode is representative of my efforts to normalize the focus on mental wellness. https://soundcloud.com/madness2magic/ep2-christmas-and-crazy
Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?
Aside from my DNA being intertwined with madness, I realized that every time I would speak or write about the topic, so many people would WHISPER that they, too, had dealt with it. In addition, I became a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocate to kids in foster care), and I am witnessing first-hand the number of families devastated by mental illness and health agencies and legal entities that do very little in the way of support. I decided to really focus and dedicate the rest of my life to this initiative when it dawned on me that with every rise of some mass shooting or some tragic event, the same pointing of fingers kept happening. Nothing really had changed in decades AND I needed to give a voice not only to people who are struggling themselves with a mental illness, but to those of us who find ourselves in caregiver roles with nowhere to go for real answers or understanding.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Get OFF of Facebook and bombardment of messages that tell you how terrible and scary everything is and that force you to compare. Go outside. Breathe in the fresh air. Hug a tree. You’d be surprised what nature can do for your state of mental health.
Be OK with NOT being ok. There’s a great coffee shop in Chicago who “gets it” and is doing something about it — https://sipofhope.com/Frequent this great place AND embrace for yourself and for others that being “not ok” is OK to talk about and feel.
ASK — SAY SOMETHING — We all have a responsibility to one another. So when you see someone in school all alone and/or being bullied…step in…be a hero…share a kindness…stop what you know is wrong. It takes courage to do it…but it really takes so little to make a HUGE difference that could end up saving someone’s life.
B) Society –
My little sister was bullied horrifically in school. Teachers saw it. They let it go. My older brother stepped in — after some kid poked a lead pencil through our sister’s hand and no action was taken by school officials. My brother put himself in jeopardy but was able to put an end to at least some of the bullying. It starts in schools…starts when kids are young. Children aren’t born to hate and abuse and be prejudiced…early behavior programs and reward systems would help greatly.
Stop putting people on the outskirts of town. Follow successful models, one of which is Rockhaven Sanitarium — an approach to mental illness that was ahead of its time. https://www.huffingtonpost.com/sezin-koehler/saving-rockhaven-americas_b_7907322.html — the closing down of mental health facilities only resulted in homeless populations and more negative societal issues. Stop looking at the problem as “either or” and start approaching it from “both and and”
Start telling TRUE stories of people living their lives trying to navigate a mental health issue. Showtimes’ Shameless has been — perhaps — the only truly accurate portrayal of a person dealing with a diagnosis of a mental illness AND with a family struggling to do what’s best for everyone involved when resources and useful assistance just aren’t there. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/showtimes-shameless-ian-g_b_9508152
Media — TRAIN reporters not to sensationalize tragedies by pointing fingers, assigning blame, or labeling everything as ‘mental illness’ — stop fanning the flames of fear
Make it OKAY to tell your employer or your teacher or whomever that you’re experiencing issues. Right now, families are torn apart if a child discloses an issue at home…an employee risks losing their job and their position as a member of the team if they disclose issues…the longer one waits to get help, the worse one’s health gets and more at risk are the consequences
Resource appropriately early mental health programs. Give access to therapies for people who have a mental illness and/or are dealing with a loved one with a mental illness. Insurance barely covers mental health related treatments. More funding into these programs reduces tragedies and greater costs later.
Stop lumping “everything” into ONE “mental health” bucket. Addictions to substances (drugs, alcohol, etc.) are unique in their origins and in their treatments. Schizophrenia is unique…and very different from substance abuse. Depression varies in degrees. Etc., etc. To lump it all under ONE is a “one size fits all” approach that never works.
Take responsibility for laws that do NOT serve us well. HIPAA laws are great for several reasons and because they are so misunderstood and medical entities fear lawsuits they are not so great when family members are managing care. Here’s a great overview: https://www.nami.org/About-NAMI/NAMI-News/Understanding-What-HIPAA-Means-for-Mental-Illness — likewise, laws about gun ownership and other freedoms DO need to be reviewed with the lens of other issues — such as mental health — applied.
Have the courage to share personal government official stories re: mental health. We see stories of authorities who have cancer in their families or something “other than mental” — where are our leaders who boldly confess to having such challenges AND being able to rise, despite them??
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?
- Spend time in nature daily. My father was a big proponent of the outdoors. Despite him having to deal with a wife and daughter who had mental health challenges, his outdoor activity helped him to BREATHE and cope. I, myself, take daily walks, sit outside in silence, head to the ocean or to a hiking trail…just being a part of all that is non-man-made in this life renews my spirit.
- Unplug. Technologies are a great thing…as much as they aren’t. We humans were not meant to be bombarded by so much “content” and “messaging” that forces us to assume negative statuses and to compare ourselves with others. Limiting myself to short time periods is key.
- Spill the beans. STOP staying silent. SHARE your story. Writing or recording your thoughts is great therapy. Doing so is not just an exercise to help you with your own challenges, but it has the power to change others’ lives who might be dealing with similar issues.
- Stop believing everything you think. Our thoughts can lead us down bunny holes. I am a huge fan of Byron Katie. Inquiry. A thought is just a thought. Thank it for its opinion and let it go.
- Serve others. Without any rewards or benefits to your own self, DO for other people. Volunteer. Pay for a stranger’s coffee. Let that car in ahead of you on the road. Buy a meal for someone you see is homeless. Choose the worst player in your school first to join your team. SERVE. GIVE. Even if you haven’t much yourself…you will be surprised how “rich” you feel when you give to others (and how much more comes back to you).
- Find the magic in whatever madness surrounds you. It’s always there. Stop thinking that things have to be “some other way” and start being open to whatever is and the beauty within whatever is. Look around you right now. No matter what your circumstances, you are not your situation. And whatever madness you’re in, I know that there’s at least ONE tiny bit of magic waiting to be seen by you. What is it? Get into the practice of finding it.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
Byron Kathie’s “loving what is” and her story of madness to magic is inspiring http://thework.com/en
I find great insight in the work of Caroline Myss https://www.myss.com/cmed/online-institute/series/the-art-of-shadow-dancing-with-archetypes/?order_id=163681
What Prince William & Harry & Princess Kate are doing for Mental Health with Heads Together — https://www.headstogether.org.uk/
Madness To Magic Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/madness2magic/ep2-christmas-and-crazy
Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!