Recovering from mental illness — NJ residents share their stories
With the proper care, individuals with even the most serious mental health conditions can still enjoy life.
While there is no cure, limiting the severity of mental illness is possible through a broad spectrum of treatment approaches.
On the final day of our series on mental health, we're featuring a couple New Jersey residents who've accepted their situations — and accepted the necessary care — and are better for it today.
Both Jacquese and Peter participate in the In Our Own Voice program developed by the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Through the program, individuals with mental health conditions give presentations throughout New Jersey about their illness and recovery.
Jacquese Armstrong, 56, Middlesex County (video above)
At 20 years old, Armstrong had a "break from reality," as it was described. Diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, she managed to finish college — but dropped her engineering major — and she's been undergoing some type of treatment ever since.
"I was not responding to medication for about 24 years, so it was full blown for about 24 years," she said.
On top of mood swings, Armstrong would hear voices in her head and she was certain people could read her mind.
She made attempts to live on her own and start a career, but the voices followed.
Today, with medication and regular interaction with mental health professionals, Armstrong lives on her own and manages the disease. The symptoms are nowhere near where they used to be, but even if delusions set in, Armstrong has the ability to tell herself they're not real.
"I'm older and I've come to finally accept and just deal with it the way it is," she said.
Armstrong speaks about her story publicly, and writes. She's the author of a published book of poetry about her mental health challenges.
Peter Renwick, 53, Essex County
Renwick's been living with a diagnosis of bipolar disorder since age 17. By age 26, he suffered three manic episodes, all of which were followed by hospitalizations, which were then followed by major bouts of depression.
The effects of the illness forced him to leave college, a job as a stockbroker, and most recently — following decades of no symptoms — a job as a high school principal in Union County.
Today, he's "feeling great," and believes the right attitude and low stress levels are key when attempting to live a normal life with a mental health condition.
"Your attitude, even in light of having a mental illness, will make a huge, huge difference," he said.
But medication needs to be part of his routine, and Renwick understands that.
"If I were to not take my mood stabilizer, I run the risk of either going down or going up, and either one of those is potentially very, very painful," he said.
Renwick considers himself retired, but he's doing work as a life coach, attempting to provide support individuals through their own challenges and transitions.