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Tammy Timm

Tammy Timm, who currently holds the title of Mrs. Cook County International, actively  participates in Chicago-area mental health awareness events. "I’d like to say I’m drawing attention to my greatest weakness,” Timm said.  

Swallowing down pills, building up pride

by Kirstin Fawcett
Oct 11, 2012

Tammy Timm is a study in contrasts, even when she’s simply walking.

The aspiring Mrs. Illinois International, 44, donned a diamond tiara and a wide smile at last Sunday’s National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI)  – Cook County North Suburban Walk as more than 400 other participants in sweatpants milled around her in Glenview’s Blue Star Memorial Woods. Every  breath wisped upward in the chilly morning air as they strolled along for the two-hour trek and swapped familiar stories of sickness, meds, recovery and struggle.

A ribbon sash swaddling Timm’s torso celebrated her as the current Mrs. Cook County International. But her title and smile belied the 14 years Timm struggled with bipolar disorder. She publicly discusses and blogs about being bipolar in an attempt to challenge society’s perceptions of the “mentally-ill.”

Mental illness remains one of the most stigmatized conditions in the world despite countless government-funded education initiatives and events such as this month's Mental Illness Awareness Week. The annual advocacy campaign is held each year during the first full week of October. Experts and individuals with bipolar, schizophrenia and other conditions believe that publicly “coming out” about their diseases can eradicate stigma better than any public service announcement.

“Education is terribly overrated,” said Patrick Corrigan, principal investigator of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research, a research center examining the stigma of mental illness and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health. “Historically, the western world is more educated about mental illness than at any time in history. And we’re probably stigmatizing it more than any time in history.”

Corrigan, who cited media portrayal of the mentally-ill as being “dangerous” and “incompetent” as a major source of stigma, said that the solution to dissolving negative perceptions is for people with lived experience to go out and share their stories.

“One out of 5 people meet criteria for mental illness, but you’d never know it because people are smart and they stay in the closet about the whole thing,” Corrigan said. “So just like in the gay community about 20 years ago, some brave souls have to take the first step. That’s what’s happening now in the community of people with mental illness.”

But “coming out” means different things to different people.

An Evanston-based accountant with bipolar disorder said he didn't care whether most of his friends or co-workers knew he was mentally ill.

“I’m so comfortable about the idea that it’s not a negative for me,” he said. “I’m not going to give up liking myself for it.”

Still, he said, he preferred not to reveal his bipolar condition to strangers, media or potential employers, for fear of experiencing the sort of a reaction he once received from a former peer.

“She responded, ‘Well, as long as you’re not cutting people up into little pieces.’ That’s the worst reaction I’ve ever heard,” he said.

“It’s sort of a civil rights issue,” he continued. “We’re considered less than human beings because people think a mentally-ill person is Jeffrey Dahmer.”

“Society needs to hear from people who speak from their lived experience,” said David Oakes, a Chicago native who is international director of MindFreedom International, a grassroots organization based in Eugene, Ore. that supports psychiatric survivors.

“More and more, there are peers all over Chicago, and nationally, being paid to provide peer support and to speak out publicly about going through the mental health system. We listen to the voices of people who have been through this. We hear their perspectives. And they are diverse,” Oakes said.

Oakes tracks “Mad Pride” days across the world, which are held in countries ranging from seek to reclaim slurs such as “mad” or “crazy” through celebrations and festivals celebrating the individualism of all people.  

Others with mental illness “come out” in less flamboyant – yet equally purposeful – ways.

Nine years ago, Brenda Jordan, a 62-year-old Skokie resident, noticed her 17-year-old son, Chris, had become withdrawn and messy. He later told her that was hearing voices and hallucinated that the TV was talking to him. Chris was hospitalized and diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after.  

Today, Chris is healthy, holds a steady job and is two classes away from earning his associate’s degree. He’s also active in “Ending the Silence,” a NAMI-sponsored program in which high-functioning volunteers with mental illness visit local high schools and share personal anecdotes with students.

Brenda Jordan said that her son’s visits help humanize schizophrenia for teenagers who might not know anyone who’s suffered from a psychological illness.  And she thinks the dialogue spurred by initiatives such as “Ending the Silence” helps chip away at stigma one story at a time.

“We’ve made great strides when you think about what mental illness was like 50 years ago,” Brenda Jordan said.

Such great strides, in fact, that Timm plans to temporarily leave walks in the woods behind to saunter across stage in a pageant gown this March. Mrs. Illinois International is an issue-based pageant held in Wadsworth. 

Timm’s platform – “Ending the Silence: Recognizing and Responding Fearlessly to Mental Health Issues” – aims to increase awareness toward clinical depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other oft-misaligned conditions.

“I’d like to say I’m drawing attention to my greatest weakness,” Timm said.