Outwardly, Rohan Sharma had it all.
Fit and good-looking, Sharma was an honors graduate of the prestigious Carnegie Mellon University who was on his way to medical school at Drexel.
Inwardly, though, Sharma was suffering – beset by bouts of depression and mania, uncontrolled mood swings that had become increasingly more severe since high school.
Sharma tried to suppress the inner torment and took some limited steps to cope, but it all spiraled out of control, leading to substance abuse, erratic behavior and paranoid delusions that culminated in a psychotic episode during which he committed a crime that landed him in jail for nearly two years.
Still, that’s not the end of Sharma’s story. In many ways, it’s the beginning.
“Even though I was locked up, for the first time I felt free because I could be open and honest and genuine about what I was experiencing,” said Sharma.
With that newfound openness, Sharma was able to get the help he needed to successfully deal with bipolar disorder.
Now, he’s writing a book, getting some notice as a rapper styled as Rx Mundi, and speaking out as a mental health advocate for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
NAMI’s Bucks County chapter held an event Saturday, March 9, at the Riegelsville Library during which Sharma and other NAMI advocates spoke to encourage ending the stigma around mental illness and to let suffering people and those who care about them know that help is out there.
“Seek help when you need it,” said Sharma.
“We want you to know that you are not alone,” said Laurie Pepe, a program director for NAMI Bucks County.
Pepe, who also spoke at the event, said that approximately 57 million Americans suffer with mental illness. Still, about two-thirds don’t get help.
That sad reality comes as data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that the suicide rate in the United States increased 33 percent between 1999 and 2017, while addiction epidemics have swept through the country, including Bucks County.
To counter the troubling trends, NAMI advocates believe it is essential to erase the stigma around mental illness.
That starts with recognizing that mental illness is not anyone’s fault and is nothing to be ashamed of. It includes being sensitive in the language used when referring to mental illness. It entails acting with kindness, compassion and patience toward folks living with mental health issues – including yourself. And, it means spreading the message that many people deal with mental illness, so no one has to hurt alone.
“It’s okay to not be okay, but it’s not okay to stay that way,” said Nick Emeigh, a NAMI speaker.
How can you or a loved one get help? A good place to start is by calling NAMI at 866-399-6264 or visiting the association online at namibuckspa.org.
Cognitive therapy, group therapy, art/music/pet therapy, medication, various self-help practices that can be learned with guidance – all this and more is available in abundance and can dramatically improve quality of life when engaged with sincerely.
Not sure if you or a loved one is experiencing mental illness?
Pepe said some signs include but aren’t limited to: feeling sad/withdrawn for two weeks or more; engaging in out-of-control/risky behaviors; experiencing sudden overwhelming fear, which could include physical symptoms like racing heart; withdrawing from activities; substance abuse; experiencing drastic changes in mood/behavior/personality; seeing or believing things that aren’t real; engaging in self-harm; suicidal thoughts/planning; and feeling a persistent sense of hopelessness and/or emptiness.
Pepe encouraged people who know of someone experiencing any of these symptoms to reach out and offer compassion and assistance. “It could make all the difference,” she said.
While people with mental illness may experience such symptoms, they are not defined by them, said Emeigh. Rather, they are individuals with much to offer, he said. They just need the right support and practices to bring their best selves to fruition – something that will not only benefit the individual, but society as a whole.
“Nobody should let mental health get in the way of having success in their life as they define it,” said Pepe.