Central High School alumna Kaitlinn Estevez, 24, is used to speaking on stage, but she said that preparing for her talk at the second annual TEDxAdelphiUniversity, on March 31, was different.
“At first I was really resistant to share as many details as I did,” she said moments after stepping offstage. “I thought I was gonna kinda play it safe and allude to things and not outright say them.”
But Estevez decided not to self-censor. She wanted to be vulnerable and include personal details about her struggle with mental illness. “You have to say your story as it is,” she said. “You can’t make it shiny or clean, ’cause it’s not — it’s messy. It’s a messy story, and that’s OK. It took me a while to realize that that messiness was OK.”
Estevez was first admitted to a psych ward when she was 16, for depression. She spoke about the people she met there, and what it was like to be a young woman struggling with a stigmatized illness. She spent years in and out of treatment facilities, and qualified for a government supervision program in which clinicians made daily home visits. After completing programs, though, she said, she often felt stuck.
“What on earth do I do now?” she said. “Where do I go from here?”
In addition to symptoms of depression and anxiety, she was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder. Because of the stigma about mental illness — she didn’t want it to be true.
“I was so aware of how those people were treated — of how they were portrayed in society — that I rejected my diagnosis completely,” she recalled. “I didn’t talk about it. I didn’t share it with people. Nor did I even try to embrace it for myself. I didn’t try to understand it.”
With the physical symptoms suppressed by medication, Estevez said she pretended her ailments didn’t exist — which made them worse.
In 2013, she attempted suicide, and was immediately sent back to the inpatient treatment facilities she’d been introduced to as a teenager. It was then that she started writing, and began to wrestle with her illness using words.
She felt comforted by the response to her poetry, and made it her mission to speak publicly about mental illness to counter the stigma that can prevent people from seeking treatment.
Estevez was one of about 100 applicants, 40 finalists and, ultimately, 10 speakers at the Adelphi event. She said she quelled her anxiety with deep breathing and yoga poses in the dressing room before her talk.
Elizabeth Cohn, executive director of the center for health innovation at Adelphi, said the selection process that yields speakers like Estevez is a difficult one. “We’re looking for people who have a real message to deliver,” she said. Applications are open to students and the community at large, beginning in November. The event expanded greatly this year, Cohn said, and the organizers hope for that to continue.
Estevez said she was recently accepted into Columbia University’s graduate program for writing. Friends and event organizers surrounded her as she stepped offstage: “You did it!” they said softly. “You did it!”
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