During a psychotic episode while enrolled at Harvard Business School, Katherine Switz believed she was Jesus Christ.
“I was crossing the Harvard Business School campus in the year 2000,” she said. “It was freezing cold in the middle of winter and I was out there without a coat, disheveled and gesturing wildly. I was walking with a friend and yelling ‘I want to get to the Charles River! I know I can walk on water!’”
Hours later in an urgent care facility at Harvard, Switz said she tried to baptize a succession of nurses under a faucet.
Switz told her remarkable story at the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission meeting in November in Riverside. She did so to illustrate that a person can thrive with a mental health condition.
“Of course now I know that I’m not Jesus,” she said. “I’m one of the 1 in 5 Americans who will experience a mental health condition in any given year. You all know as well as I do, that they are your colleagues, your friends and parents of your children’s friends. We’re everywhere. We are the people you pass on the street.”
The Commission opens each of its regular meetings with a story from a mental health consumer, family member or advocate in the hope of helping to overcome stigma and to encourage development of innovative programs to deal with mental health conditions.
“I just want to compliment you on bringing a message of hope for people and for the work that you’re doing and showing that you can overcome this problem and that you can do it in a way that lets you lead a rewarding and joyful life,” said Commissioner Bill Brown. “It is very inspiring to hear stories like yours that really do show the positive side, that there can be a light at the end of the darkness.”
Switz told the Commission that she finished her degree and went on to have a successful professional career and became an executive of a nonprofit organization, the Stability Network. She is the proud mom to a 5-year-old son and the wife of a loving husband. She accomplished all this while living with severe depression, anxiety and psychosis. Switz crafted a successful plan to combat her condition that included a network of medical professionals, regular therapy and family support as well as a strict regime of exercise and meditation, good sleep and fulfilling work.
“It takes a multifaceted approach,” she said. “It takes resources and privilege, which I’m very acutely aware that I have. It takes family support which I’m lucky to have.”
Switz said she wanted the Commission to consider programs that provide work and education opportunities for people living with mental health conditions, which can go a long way toward helping people recover.
“The last point that I want to make is that we can tilt the odds for people in recovery like me,” she said. “What I am most passionate about is that it’s about providing role models for people living with mental health conditions and working to eliminate social prejudice.”
Switz told commissioners that having a job and educational goals can really help with recovery.
“To the extent that you all are looking at workplace programs, or other areas and ways to keep people employed or in school, that structure really helps,” she added.
Switz launched a nonprofit organization, the Stability Network which is dedicated to eliminating social injustice and stigma and to show others that they, too, can thrive with mental health conditions.
“I realized that people like me with the privilege that I have had have to speak out so other people could get the help they need,” she said. “We need to eliminate social prejudice and we needed to create role models so that people could see a roadmap to recovery.”
Commissioner Gladys Mitchell said she was very inspired by Switz’s story.
“It gives people like me, hope,” she said. “I am always so touched by these stories because it gives people hope that wellness is possible with the hard work that you put in. Your story is amazing and so God bless you.”
Switz began organizing people to speak out first in Seattle and then all over the country and around the globe. The Stability Network now has about 130 leaders in 70 cities who are all living and working with mental health conditions.
“It is possible to thrive with a mental health condition,” Switz said. “I am living proof.”