Jennifer Marshall is a mom, executive director, storyteller, and a woman living with bipolar disorder. In 2011, she started chronicling her challenges of living with mental illness while raising two young children.
Her story was a powerful one and connected with people all over the country, many of whom wrote to her to say that they had been inspired after reading her blog. Jennifer knew she was onto something, and that storytelling was a powerful tool for healing.
This was the beginning of ‘This Is My Brave’ – a nonprofit with the mission of bringing stories of mental illness and addiction out of the shadows and into the spotlight.
Listen now to learn how this powerful stage show has transformed the lives of people in cities across America.
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Guest information for ‘This is My Brave’ Podcast Episode
Jennifer Marshall is the Co-Founder and Executive Director of This Is My Brave, a mental health storytelling nonprofit organization. Since its inception in 2014, This Is My Brave has hosted 59 unique productions featuring more than 750 individuals telling their true stories of overcoming mental illness and addiction through creative expression. Jenn lives with type 1 bipolar disorder and suffered from a postpartum psychosis episode and an antenatal psychosis episode during the years she was having her children, now 8 and 10. Her award-winning blog – BipolarMomLife.com – which she launched in 2011, became an inspiration to many and was the path that led her to create a platform for others to also share their stories. In her spare time, she loves reading, hot yoga, and spending time at the beach.
Computer Generated Transcript for ‘This is My Brave’ Episode
Editor’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.
Announcer: Welcome to the Psych Central Podcast, where each episode features guest experts discussing psychology and mental health in every day plain language. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.
Gabe Howard: Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s episode of the Psych Central Podcast. Today I will be talking to Jennifer Marshall who is a mom who lives with bipolar disorder and is the co-founder and executive director of a very cool nonprofit called “This Is My Brave.” Jennifer welcome to the show.
Jennifer Marshall: Thanks, Gabe. It’s good to be with you today.
Gabe Howard: Well we are very very very glad that you’re here. The first question that I want to ask you is, you sort of rose to prominence by being kind of a mommy blogger who talked about living with bipolar disorder, is that correct?
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah I started blogging when my kids were about 1 and 3 because I had gone through a struggle of coming to terms with my illness and learning how to manage it and also raise kids. So I had gone through four hospitalizations. By that point when my kids were 1 and 3 and I needed to find stories from other people I was looking for stories online of other people who had gone through similar issues. And when I found them they inspired me to also share my story. So I thought I can help another person by putting my story out there. I wanted to do that.
Gabe Howard: One of the things that I’ve always really respected about you Jennifer is that you do talk about being a mom who lives with bipolar disorder and so often because of the stigma and the discrimination. People who have kids you know they kind of don’t want to put it out there because they’re afraid of what will happen to their children and as you pointed out that means it sort of isolates you. Was that a concern for you when you got started?
Jennifer Marshall: You know, Gabe, when I first started writing I wanted to write openly with my real name. But I talked to my husband and he was supportive. But my mom and dad were just nervous. You know they were worried that I’d be judged and discriminated upon if I ever decided to go back to work. Because at that point in my life I had taken time off from work and I was being a stay at home mom. And so they were thinking about my future and they didn’t know what that would look like if I were to open up. And so when I first started my blog I wrote anonymously and it wasn’t until I made the decision to open up with my real name that I realized what a difference it made not only for me. I finally felt like I could be myself. I finally felt like I could talk about every aspect of my life publicly if I wanted to. Not just the nice things that were happening in my life the good things I could talk about the struggles I’d gone through and when I shared my first blog post with my real name I had parents coming up to me even at my kids preschool saying like oh my gosh. So your story. Thank you for sharing. That’s just so courageous of you and so brave and. But before I did that I mean my mom that was one of her concerns. She said, “Jen, what is this? Parents of the other kids at preschool don’t want their kids to play with your kids because they know you have bipolar disorder.” I mean my whole thing back then was mom I wouldn’t want to associate with them and if they’re that close minded I want to educate them by putting my story out there like people who live with bipolar disorder are just regular people and they can live great lives when they work on their treatment and they do what they need to do to stay healthy. And that was what I saw then, when I when I opened up all these parents were just grateful to talk about it. And you know my kids back then were so little that they didn’t really understand what I was doing. But as they grew and they started to see my work and they would come to our events and we’d talk about it and I tried to talk about it with them at their level so that they’d be able to grasp it as they got older. And now I mean you should hear the way they talk about mental illness and my condition and you know they talk about it just like it’s any physical condition. And that’s what I think needs to happen.
Gabe Howard: I can really relate to that. It’s sort of one of the things that happened in my family you know when I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Nobody in my family knew anything about bipolar disorder. I was diagnosed and then we’re all learning so there really is this like demarcation in our lives you know before Gabe’s bipolar and after Gabe’s bipolar even in the way that we talk about mental health mental illness everything but my nieces and nephews. They came along after you know Uncle Gabe was diagnosed so they just grew up with this. They grew up with learning about it and the way that they handle it and discuss it is so much different. And it gives me so much hope for the future.
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah I think it’s a generational thing too. You know I think we talk about this really often in the mental health circles but like older generations were just they didn’t know a lot about it. And so the more we know I think the more it gets rid of that fear. And we can start to get rid of that discrimination. The more we talk about it.
Gabe Howard: How did you feel about your parents. I don’t want to say raining on your parade but kind of raining on your parade. You know you were excited to advocate and get out there and connect people and they were like Whoa whoa whoa whoa whoa slow down. Did that cause any tension.
Jennifer Marshall: So that was in 2011 when I started writing and they encouraged me to stay anonymous. It felt like they were ashamed and I felt shameful about it. Like OK well so I can’t talk about it. And we have to hide this. But yet I was proud of how I was living my life and how I was managing the condition and also juggling two small kids and so that was difficult. It didn’t hurt our relationship. I mean I just tried to get them to understand. And it took time for them. Eventually then when I did open up it was the spring of 2013. So about a year and a half later I knew that they still weren’t at that place. They still weren’t with me on being ready to be open but I just took the jump. Like I got my husband’s blessing and he’s always been so supportive and I was I was asked to write for a major web site. And I said I’m done hiding. I’m proud of my life and I’m going to talk about it. And my parents I know they’re going to come around eventually. A couple weeks after I first opened up there was a lot of tension. But eventually they started to understand. And when I say coming full circle I mean my mom eventually then you know when I launched the nonprofit and then it began to grow and grow. She eventually kind of came on board as a producer. One of our events. So it was neat to see that shift. And I mean they’ve always been supportive of me and my journey but like to see them be so publicly vocal about it now is really inspiring to me.
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Gabe Howard: It’s an excellent testament to what it means to sort of put yourself out there and get people on board and change minds. I know that we would love to live in a world where this is no big deal where it wasn’t considered brave or it wasn’t considered anything and I know that we’re working on that. But I do love the stories of people who aren’t on board that don’t understand that change their mind because it shows that it’s possible. It really shows that people who are entrenched in this belief that mental illness is shameful or stigmatizing and they don’t even know why but they believe it can see a different path and see a different way and change. Jennifer one of the things that you said is that you love stories that you started a non-profit. Can you tell us about This Is My Brave?
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah I’d love to. So This Is My Brave started after I realized the outpouring of support. When I opened up with my story online all of these people were thanking me and I said you know when they thanked me I noticed the same thing happened every time they would thank me for sharing my story and they would tell me their story about being affected by mental illness whether it was themselves living with a mental illness or someone they loved. And so I thought to myself there’s something to this. Like this the storytelling and it was within a matter of six months I met a woman who became my co-founder and I told her I have this idea but I need help to launch it. And she said her family had been touched significantly by mental illness and she said you know what. You’re right. I want to do something I want to join you and try to change that. Because she’d be in the grocery store and someone would say “How’s your son doing?” Because he had been going through a struggle. And but they said it in whispers and shouldn’t be like you know we should be able to talk about this like any other condition that people go through. And so she joined me and we launched the concept which was the theater show where we could celebrate stories of recovery so people telling their story creatively through poetry and original music and essay and we launched the idea on Kickstarter which is a crowdfunding website. So you put your idea out there and tell people how much money you need to make it happen and they contribute and they get benefits. So they would donate 20 bucks to get a ticket to the show. Six months later when it’s all said and done. So we put the idea out there within 31 days. We had raised over ten thousand dollars to fund the very first show and it was a big success. It was at that point we were with the end of 2013 and then we had six months to put the show together and we put the call out for storytellers and we met 13 people who were so talented and we got everyone together we did a couple rehearsals and then we did the show and we sold out of nearly 400 seat theater got covered in the local news a couple different stations, a magazine and then the end result was more people were saying we want this in our community. So the following year we expanded and went to more cities six cities and then we went to nine cities and then 15 17. I just grew from there. Each year.
Gabe Howard: That’s incredible. And the name. This Is My Brave. Can you tell us where that name came from?
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah so right around the time when I decided to open up publicly with my story it was right around the same time the Sara Bareilles song “Brave” had hit the radio and I just was so in love with the song. The lyrics meant a lot to me. She was saying like why don’t you tell people the truth. You know and being silent is not helping you anymore. You know why don’t you tell people the truth. And so I had tweeted to her and said with the link to my first blog post opening up publicly and I said, “Sara, I’m in love with your new song. This is how big my brave is.” And I have the link and I use whatever hashtag she was using for the new song and she retweeted me. And I just felt validated I felt like someone understood and the lyrics I guess had meant a lot. And the word brave meant a lot because people. That’s what people were saying to me when I opened up. They’re like You’re so brave and so I needed to incorporate, I knew I wanted to incorporate, that in the name of a non-profit I just didn’t know how and I was kind of brainstorming with a friend and she said, “Why don’t you call it ‘This Is My Brave?'” And I said it’s so perfect. And now when we do our shows and people are telling their story at the end a lot of them say you know my name is Jen and this is my brave and it really is powerful.
Gabe Howard: That’s great. And you know we didn’t know each other back in 2013 when that song was out and so many people sent it to me. I’m not a big music fan, ut people were emailing me links on YouTube to that song and just like Gabe somebody wrote a song about you and I’m like Wha? And you’re right. I listened to it and the lyric is I’d imagine if you just let the words out and I was like Well I do let the words out and I was like I know you always say like think of how people would understand mental illness if all of the people who were living well were able to talk about it to sort of balance out those crisis things and. It is a very inspiring song and the fact that you got retweeted is just incredible.
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah she’s an awesome artist and she continues to do amazing things and we’re just grateful we request the license to play the song at every one of our shows to kick it off and it sets the tone for the show. It’s really cool.
Gabe Howard: So every single This Is My Brave across the country plays that song before it gets started?
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah. Yeah.
Gabe Howard: So take us through that. So you sort of give licenses or franchise agreements to it to various people all across the country to put on. This Is My Brave, you know like This Is My Brave Columbus or L.A. or San Francisco. And they sort of follow your model to put it on and kind of take us through what that looks like.
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah well we produce shows two ways either a volunteer comes forward and says I love your show. I want to do it in my community I want to help organize it. And we interview them and if they’re a good fit we set them up to produce a show for us. So they work as like an extension of our staff. They’re volunteer or we work with other non-profits to want to use our show as a fundraising model. And that’s when they would pay a licensing fee to us and they get all of our support. You know the six months it takes to put the show together but then all the money that’s raised at the show most of it goes to them we take a small percentage but so. But each way is the same thing. We start at the beginning and we put a call out for storytellers and we say we’re looking for people who want to tell their story creatively about overcoming mental illness and or addiction as well and we hold a weekend of auditions and we call them auditions because we have to know that someone is invested in the process they have to create a five minute piece that tells their story which it doesn’t tell their whole life story but it tells a slice of what they’ve gone through and it shows us not only the struggle but the recovery and how they’ve been able to get through it.
Jennifer Marshall: So we hold auditions and then then they the producer in that city cast the show with about 12 to 14 people and then those folks are taken through a series of rehearsals where they get together and they bond and they meet each other and share their stories and they really kind of finalize their piece. Sometimes they have little tweaks along the way but by the final rehearsal they’re ready to go. And then we do a dress rehearsal which is usually the day of the show or the night before and our team here at This Is My Brave, we go to every show and we’ll do opening remarks and just kind of give the audience some of the history of the organization and why we do what we do and then we’re there for logistics and we live tweet and we live in the story all the shows and and then all the shows are professionally videotaped and then cataloged on our YouTube channel.
Gabe Howard: Is it. Is it hard to pick 12 to 14 people. I know. On one hand I think wow you know 12 to 14 people all telling their stories is incredible. But then I think Oh my God where am I going to find 12 to 14 people who are willing to tell their story? What have you found across the country?
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah it’s funny you say that because when we did our first show in 2014 my co-founder Anne Marie, she said, “Jenn, do you really think we’re gonna get this many people to come forward?” And I just had faith in the process. And when you put that call out you’re surprised. I mean the people you meet are just so talented and smart and funny and they’re just awesome people. And we usually get more people than we can take. And casting is difficult. You know everybody’s story is important. That’s the hardest part of the whole process. But we cast on different things. I mean we can’t have a show that’s 12 stories about depression. You have to show that the scope of mental illness. That’s the goal of our show is to show lots of different conditions and different people’s backgrounds and different mediums and how they’re presenting their story. So we strive for a mix of music and poetry and an essay. We’ve had a couple of dancers in our shows before and a couple of comedians And also then all different mental health conditions so that people can really come to the show and they get educated. I mean sometimes you’ll be in a show you’ll be in the audience at a show and hear a story that you’ve never heard of that particular condition and you learn a lot.
Gabe Howard: And I imagine that you also strive to make sure that you don’t have 12 women or 12 men or
Jennifer Marshall: Yeah.
Gabe Howard: You know gender race condition age. I mean that way you get like a real broad section of society.
Jennifer Marshall: We do we strive for that. It’s been challenging. I will say we’ve I mean been doing this for five and a half years now and we see many more women coming forward than men and that I think that comes down to the societal stereotype that men can’t be weak or men can’t show their emotions or else they’re weak you know which is not true. Everybody has emotions everybody you know feels things and men should be able to express that the same as women. And so we do we strive for equality in our shows. It’s tricky because we have to go with the people who come forward. And so we’ve had maybe a handful of shows that were all women but men. Men are coming forward more often. It’s just something that I think we still need to work on.
Gabe Howard: I completely agree I am. I’m surprised at the number of times people tell me they’re like Oh you’re so brave and I’m like well I just want to tell my story about living with bipolar disorder and they say no no no I mean because you’re a man and I’m like Whoa wait what? But you are right there. There are a lot more women in this space and it kind of shows me that for as tough as men claim to be we’re kind of scared we’re afraid to do this we’re afraid to step up it and that’s the challenge that I always put out to men. I’m like listen if we’re supposed to be so tough and we’re supposed to be so brave. Why is telling the honest truth about your life. The thing that keeps you on your butt. But yeah men are often not in touch with their emotions and we hide things that we shouldn’t. And I think it’s dangerous not only to young boys who look up to us but you know young girls who are watching how men behave as well. So I really would like to see this change and I do believe that it is because men and women get mental illness. Equally
Jennifer Marshall: Yes.
Gabe Howard: You can ignore it all you want but it’s not ignoring you. Jennifer, it is always awesome to hang out with you. Where can we find just Jennifer Marshall online? Where’s your blog?
Jennifer Marshall: So I wish we had more time to blog these days. But my old content of my blog is a at new site, JenniferMarshall.me. That’s M E, and my Twitter handle reflects my old blog name. It’s @bipolarmomlife.
Gabe Howard: And where can we find This Is My Brave so that people can find out if it’s coming to a town near them? Learn about the audition process and also the YouTube channel?
Gabe Howard: And you said that all of the past shows have been archived. They’re all on there you can watch them and they’ve been professionally videotaped as well. So none of that none of that shakiness and get a headache five minutes in. These are quality videos that people can watch for absolutely free right.
Jennifer Marshall: Exactly. All the full shows are online and we’d love for people to check them out and share them and re tweet and yeah get the word out. If anyone has an interest out there in possibly producing this is my brave show in their community. They can go to our website and scroll all the way down to the bottom and there’s a Contact Us form just fill that out and express your interest and we’ll be in touch to talk with them about what’s involved.
Gabe Howard: Wonderful. Jennifer thank you so much for being here we really really appreciate it. And to our listeners you really need to head over to YouTube.com/ThisIsMyBrave. There’s lots of great stuff to see over there. And I guarantee that you will find it pretty much every mental illness and stories told in the most clever and unique and interesting ways. So thank you. And again, Jennifer, thank you so much.
Jennifer Marshall: Thank you, Gabe.
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About The Psych Central Podcast Host
Gabe Howard is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar and anxiety disorders. He is also one of the co-hosts of the popular show, A Bipolar, a Schizophrenic, and a Podcast. As a speaker, he travels nationally and is available to make your event stand out. To work with Gabe, please visit his website, gabehoward.com.