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Billy Howard: Step Inside My Head

March 11, 2013

Billy Howard: Step Inside My Head

Billy Howard is the featured speaker at this year's Skyland Trail Associates Spring Luncheon & Fashion Show. Howard is a 2011-2012 Rosalynn Carter Fellow for Mental Health Journalism. Howard is the creator of Step Inside My Head, a series of stories, photos and videos that introduces young people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness and have actively and courageously participated in their recovery and treatment. Active Minds, a college and university mental health organization, has partnered with Howard to bring the project to a national audience of teens and young adults.

I had just applied for a Rosalynn Carter Fellowship in Mental Health Journalism when I was asked to photograph a Skyland Trail client for Journeys Magazine—Grayson Crenshaw. My immediate bond forged on the assignment with Grayson and his mother helped to define a project that has become my own journey into understanding, and, in a small way, attempting to fight the stigma of mental illness.

Grayson was eager to become one of my first collaborators as I began interviewing, videotaping and telling the stories of young people who have been diagnosed with mental illness and participated in their own recovery.

My goal, which mirrors the mission of the Mental Health Program at the Carter Center, is to de-stigmatize mental illness in teens and early adults by introducing them through stories and video to peers who have fought through their illnesses and courageously confronted their diagnosis.

In the mid 1980s I produced a book on people with HIV/AIDS, Epitaphs for the Living: Words and Images in the Time of AIDS (see CNN feature:

It was a time in our country when the disease was so heavily stigmatized that people were shunned from families, friends and employment, lost insurance coverage and homes and were marginalized in society. I have seen remarkable changes and acceptance in the last 25 years as people were introduced through documentaries and articles and were forced to see HIV/AIDS sufferers not for their disease but for their humanity. It struck me that the mentally ill face that stigma every day, and my hope is to tear down the misconceptions of mental illness by personalizing the stories of those who are most affected by it.

Step Inside My HeadA partnership with the college mental health organization Active Minds has given the project, Step Inside My Head: Teens Speak Out on Mental Health, a platform to reach out to an audience across the country through their website and an upcoming touring exhibit. Alison Malmon founded the organization after her brother’s suicide in college. She fights for mental illness to be seen like any other disease and treated with the same compassion:

“You don’t say someone is cancer,” she points out, “so why is someone bipolar? You are not your diagnosis, you are a person with a diagnosis.”

That simple distinction is the difference between empathy and misunderstanding, bridging the gap from isolation to acceptance and a healthier more connected life.

I am continuing my own journey, learning lessons from participants who have shared their stories of eating disorder, suicide ideation, depression and chemical imbalance. I look back to the person who opened the door to my own path to understanding—a young man who broke through his own barriers because he was unwilling to accept a marginalized life.

Kicked out of every school he attended from kindergarten to high school, Grayson’s aggressive and violent behavior isolated him, and repeated misdiagnosis led to frustration. At 16 he was finally diagnosed with bipolar illness, which he says “is very sneaky,” cycling in and out of intensity. After several failed attempts at therapy, he began dialectical behavioral therapy at Skyland Trail and the veil of confusion lifted.

Grayson sees lessons in a life that has created a road map through harrowing terrain. His experiences to build a successful life have left him with a wisdom he wants to share. “You actually get a second life and it’s kind of like a rebirth after you get diagnosed. It’s not the end, it’s a new beginning.”

I invite you to read and comment on the stories of other amazing young people and their experiences accepting and overcoming mental illness online at

- Billy Howard