Tuesday Q&A: Mark Joyella

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mental-illness-awareness-181If you know me, you know I believe we all have the power to spread awareness, even if it’s to one other person in our lives, and that every little bit matters. A journalist with nearly 12,000 followers on Twitter, Mark Joyella is in a position to spread awareness far and wide, and we’re lucky enough that he’s willing to! I first heard of him when he wrote a great piece called “Screw stigma: I’m coming out” about his personal experience with OCD, and I’ve since learned he stands up against the stigma and misconceptions surrounding mental illness in general.

As a journalist, you’re in the public eye. And, right or not, people have certain expectations of public figures, so you took what some would consider a risk when you wrote “Screw stigma: I’m coming out.” Why did you decide to disclose that you have OCD? How was the piece received?

I had grown increasingly concerned about the content of news stories and how mental illness was being handled — it felt to me that instead of illuminating the topic, some of the reporting merely reinforced stereotypes. I felt that failing to disclose my own illness —  and refusing to speak out because I didn’t want my illness public — had become an unbearable situation. The reaction was exceptionally positive, and I immediately connected with other journalists who had revealed their mental illness — and others who weren’t ready to do so.

You note in that piece that you were never shy about telling co-workers about your physical symptoms and ailments, and refer to being recognized during a colonoscopy as “a decent anecdote.” But you weren’t willing to talk about your mental illness in the same way. Tell us why.

I think most people look at physical illness as something that happens to you, while mental illness, unfairly, is seen as who a person is — that’s why people with mental illness often feel judged or blamed. There’s also a kind of bond in sharing stories of physical illness — even the awkwardness or unpleasantness of the illness or the treatment — that makes sharing stories an easy thing to do. But with mental illness, there’s no guarantee how you will be received, and no way to know if anyone will identify with what you are experiencing, even though the statistics tell us it’s highly likely in any given workplace there are several people who are in some way touched directly by mental illness.

When were you diagnosed with OCD, and how did you realize what you’d been going through might be OCD?

OCD was first mentioned to me by a therapist as we were working on my struggle to break out of personal isolation — there were tons of fears that kept me inside my home and not living. But because I was able to get to work and even travel extensively on stories, I wasn’t aware of how isolated and afraid I really was.

After you were diagnosed, how did you feel? How did you go about treating your OCD symptoms?

On the one hand, it’s nice to know there’s an explanation for what you’re experiencing, and I liked that. But OCD? Because I don’t have outward compulsions, it was hard to accept at first. But a psychiatrist agreed with the diagnosis, and off I went. I began studying up on the disorder, began taking medicine to treat it, and I began to get better.

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People often ask me how I told my loved ones that I’d been diagnosed with OCD, so I’ll pose the same question to you: Who did you tell, and how?

I didn’t tell anybody at first. The only person outside my doctors who knew was my girlfriend — now my wife — who had struggled with the walls I had put up to protect myself. She had suspected OCD, but I must admit it sounded like a wild idea until the “experts” said, yep, that’s it. The rest of my friends and family learned of my diagnosis when I wrote my story. Probably not the best way to bring it up — but it worked, and I’m sure I would’ve lost endless amounts of sleep trying to prepare for a conversation about it — this way the band-aid came right off and I didn’t have to begin the conversation at all. “I read your story,” people would say, and we would talk about it. For me, that was the easiest way: I threw it out there all at once.

What advice do you have for my readers who want to advocate for OCD awareness but don’t know where to begin? And what if they’re worried how people will perceive them?

I’ve been massively impressed with the ways people advocate for OCD awareness — with small steps and giant efforts. There’s a way to do it for every person. I’ve used social media to call out news stories that I felt were poorly done, and to try and boost the signal for people who have good stories to tell. But sometimes the smallest actions — like seeing a person on Twitter who says they are suffering with the illness, and responding “you’re not alone” can have an impact. Imagine hearing that from a person in a country far away when you really, really needed to hear it.

I admire how open you are on social media, and how willing you are to call people out when they’re being ignorant. I laughed out loud at this one. I’ve been insulted and even sworn at for doing similar things. Have you ever really gotten into it with anyone?

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I’ve had fellow reporters get very defensive when I criticized the words they used in stories (one example: a reference to a person with mental illness “escaping” from a “mental institution.” I wrote: “do you mean a “patient” fleeing a “hospital”? The reporter blamed the law enforcement agency for using the terms, and said he was merely repeating what the “official” information was. I said, you know, you don’t have to repeat stigma-reinforcing language. And people get really offended when you call out OCD jokes. They never meant any harm and they can’t believe you are attacking them for turning OCD into a punchline. But man, I hate those jokes so, so much.

On a broader level, you’ve worked on several pieces addressing how the media reports on mental health in America — for example, it seems that whenever there’s a mass shooting reporters feel comfortable diagnosing the shooter with some mental illness or another. What can reporters do differently — and better?

Reporters can get educated. There are tons of resources — around the world — for journalists to learn more about what mental illness is, how common it is, and how not to fall into the traps of writing stories that are filled with inaccurate assumptions.

If you could share just one piece of advice with others who have OCD, what would it be?

It’s OK to not be OK. Recovery is not a straight line, and I find that great weeks when I push my boundaries and challenge my fears, are often followed by weeks when I need to step back and while it’s tempting to see that as a failure or setback, I think it’s like resting a sore muscle after pushing it hard during training. You don’t just get stronger and stronger. You push, you rest, you get stronger, you push again.

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