According to Mental Health America, 1 in 5 Americans will have a diagnosable mental illness within a given year.

This means 1 in 5 of your neighbors, loved ones and community. You cannot tell by looking at us who we are. Stigma can keep us from openly sharing this part of ourselves.

My name is Laura Kaponer, and I am 1 in 5.

In 2015 I relocated here from New York after falling into a horrible mental illness episode. I found comfort starting fresh among people who didn’t know this part of me. I wanted to leave this part of me behind in New York.

Quietly, I began attending NAMI Lowcountry Connections meetings. I was hoping to find solidarity in people like me and at the same time convince myself that I wasn’t really like “those people.” I bought into the stigma of all the horrible things people with mental illnesses are.

I was ashamed.

All this denial and silence crippled my recovery. My behavior was reinforcing that there was something inherently wrong with me and my peers.

I would laugh at the jokes about mental illness coworkers made. It was important to blend in and separate myself from those with mental illnesses.

In 2018 everything changed. After abruptly resigning from a toxic job, I attended my third annual NAMI South Carolina Conference. Although I had always appreciated these events, this time was different. Brave people shared stories of loved ones, as professionals, and as the 1 in 5.

I realized I needed to add my voice as well.

The only way I was going to do this was with full transparency. I wanted to share my triumphs as well as my perceived failures. I knew there would be risks: employers might not hire me, relationships might end, and there might be judgments from my community. Yet, I had to do it. I had to show my peers we don’t need to hide in the shadows.

There was nothing to be ashamed of.

It started slowly by opening up on social media. The positive response was overwhelming. This motivated me to contact every local publication expressing the importance of mental health advocacy and education. As expected, almost all of them ignored me.

However, two publications enthusiastically supported me. This newspaper was one of them. The editors felt what I had to say was worth hearing. I was encouraged to branch out beyond my own recovery experiences to share those of others.

It was my honor to write about substance use disorder, bipolar, eating disorders, service animals, and dissociative identity disorder as well as other topics.

NAMI has this principle of support: “We find strength in sharing experiences.” I always interpreted that as the strength we find in the commonality with our peers. Now I believe the scope is much larger than that. It gives those 1 in 5 a voice.

I am Laura Kaponer and I am proud to be 1 in 5.

Laura Kaponer is a mental health advocate and social media blogger, as well as a volunteer with the local chapter of NAMI. #LauraKaponeris1in5.