Jacquese Armstrong

Jacquese Armstrong_small

My friends noticed a change in my demeanor before I did, asking why I was so “touchy” all of a sudden or why I was “breaking down” in the middle of the day. This was the beginning of a nightmare for me (of course now I call it a challenge) and the end of my pursuit of a chemical engineering degree.

I was 20, in my junior year, when I had a psychotic break. I have lived with schizo-affective disorder for 32 years now. My disorder manifests schizophrenic and bipolar symptoms. It has been a challenge to live with, but I constantly rise to meet it. I have no choice if I want to live.

For 24 years, I lived in a constant barrage of symptoms: auditory hallucinations, extreme paranoia, delusional thinking, depression and mania (extreme mood swings) and suicidal ideations. Thankfully, my family has been supportive every step of the way, even from keeping me from being put in the long-term facility the doctor recommended because I did not respond to any medication in the beginning, even ECT. They had a friend of the family keep me at our home while they were at work.

Finally, about 8 years ago, I tried a new medication which eventually alleviated most of the schizophrenic symptoms. However, I still have occasional bouts with paranoia and psychosis. I have though been able to live 9 years independently, uninterrupted by a long residence with my parents.

This disease is something that affects the whole family whether they accept it and the person having the illness or not. The stigma is not just on us: it is on our families, too. Even some mental health professionals will try to play the blame game on the family or the way you were raised or the “character” of the environment you were raised in. Having had a happy childhood until I was 20, I am convinced that this illness is a chemical imbalance in the brain.

I have hanged my career path 5 times to “accommodate” this illness. My first concession was earning a B. A. in Journalism. My aspirations now lie in speaking and writing about stigma and mental health along with getting my poetry, short stories and memoirs published.

How AACT-NOW has helped

I was overcome when I was asked to become a member of the AACT-NOW advisory committee. AACT-NOW is an African American Outreach program of NAMI-NJ. I was already working as a volunteer in the office one day a week and all were aware of my illness. The invitation came at the end section of 24 years of constant disappointments over “balls dropped” as far as occupations and personal responsibilities were concerned. I was very honored that the coordinator, Cynthia Miles, would reject the stigma stance and ask me to become a part of the group.

The group consists mostly of mental health professionals and family members of persons with a mental illness. AACT-NOW’s mission is to educate the African American community about mental health and illness, thereby helping to eradicate stigma. We do this by maintaining a presence in the community at health fairs and having informative programs related to mental health concerns.

We provide support groups for families and consumers in three regions: northern, central and southern. In the southern region, in Burlington, there is a support group just for teens. In addition, AACT-NOW provides support and information in the form of conferences we have had that focus on healing with keynote speakers of note in the African American mental health community.

I think that AACT-NOW is of benefit to all people of the community because mental illness does not discriminate on any level. We all must be concerned about maintaining good mental health. However, it is very helpful to have an outreach targeted at our community. We have much to understand and discover within ourselves as far as mental health is concerned.

Read Jacquese’s article on mentalwellnesstoday.com “Living with Schizophrenia