Dear President Obama,

We are inspired by your election. It represents the promise of America, and a triumph over prejudice and bigotry.

Throughout your life, you have spoken up for groups of Americans who need a voice. We are writing to urge you to use your voice to help bring more public awareness and understanding to issues that affect those of us living with mental illness.

We are members of Step Up on Second, an organization that provides housing, job training, meals, medication support, and other services to individuals afflicted with severe mental illness in our community. Over the past 25 years, Step Up has helped thousands of us get off the streets, get on our feet, and learn to live more independently. Day after day, Step Up is a constant source of healing and hope.

According to the National Institute for Mental Health, over 26 percent of American adults have some kind of diagnosable mental disorder and six percent of the population suffers from severe mental illness.

Those of us who suffer daily with mental illness face another kind suffering: the pain we feel due to the judgment of others. We are often treated as pariahs. Stigma hurts. It destroys the spirit of not just those with mental illness, but everyone. It polarizes us and eats away at the common bond of our humanity.

Mr. President, we have a message and we hope you can help us spread it: We want people to know that mental illness is a medical condition — a disorder of brain chemistry. It is not a failure of character or will. Would people put down, blame, label, or shun someone with another medical condition, like diabetes? We are human beings, worthy of understanding, respect, and dignity. Without these, treatment and rehabilitation become even more of an uphill battle.

There’s another problem with stigma: Many people experiencing symptoms of mental illness suffer silently in fear and shame. They avoid disclosing their symptoms because they’re afraid of what others may think and of what might happen to their employment or insurance if they were to seek the treatment they so desperately need.

We believe that the time is ripe to turn back the tide of stigma. We are taking action to educate our community about mental illness. Our members are writing articles and speaking to community and business groups. We are getting the word out that we are human beings with talents, abilities, and feelings. With appropriate treatment and programs, many of us can recover and live more independently-like our friend, Craig.

Craig Blasingame ran a successful business for 20 years. He was married and owned three houses. Inside, an undiagnosed mental illness was eating away at him, without his knowledge. To alleviate his suffering, Craig turned to alcohol and street drugs. When his wife and father died, he went over the edge and lost his business and houses. He lived for three years in a patch of bushes.

Two years ago, Craig came to Step Up where he received medication support, meals, case-management, and counseling. He kicked drugs and alcohol and has been sober for two years.

After eight years of unemployment, Craig wanted to work again. Step Up helped him get work in their kitchen and as a security guard at a Farmer’s market. He is currently pursuing his commercial drivers license and plans to become a truck driver. In addition, he attends church services and regularly volunteers to help the homeless.

Recently, Craig found a permanent home, his own private room in Step Up’s newest building on 5th Street in Santa Monica. In two short years, Craig has turned his life around. “My life is getting better and better,” he said. “I am grateful and every day I smell the roses. Step Up gave me the time and the tools I needed to get off the streets and deal with my illness.”

Craig’s story is just one of many.

Mr. President, we know your proposed healthcare plan provides increased coverage for treatment of mental disorders. We know you want to expand our opportunities for housing and employment. We pray that these measures become reality in the near future.

In addition to these proposals, your words can make a huge difference. We hope you will speak out about mental illness and help us put an end to the stigma that damages us all. Please bring your message of hope and change to the millions of us Americans living with mental illness.

The authors are part of the Brainstorm writer’s group at Step Up on Second. Step Up’s nationally-recognized program focuses on long-term strategies and daily support services to help members receive treatment for their brain disorders, and achieve greater independence in their lives.

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