Pageant Winner Battling Mental Illness Wants to Change the Stigma Against It

In my interview, I was asked the very question that I had worried so much about: “Would my personal experiences with mental illness impede my ability to do my job? Would I be able to handle the title of Miss Statesville, Miss North Carolina, even Miss America?”

It is no secret to anyone who knows me or who have even mildly stalked my Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, that I am an avid supporter of the Miss America Organization. I began my personal journey with Miss North Carolina when I was 17 and stepped onto the Miss Statesville Pageant stage for the first time. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but afterwards a judge pulled me aside and urged me to “Keep going. You’re not ready now, but some day you will be.” Four years later I was crowned Miss Asheville 2013 and went on to compete at Miss North Carolina 2013. I had an amazing experience, and I left knowing in my heart that I would take what I had learned that week and do everything I could possibly do to get back onto that stage and become Miss North Carolina.

The end of my college career was in May of 2014. I graduated from Appalachian State University and found a job that I was (and still am) nothing short of ecstatic about. I was ready to take on the daunting post-college ‘real world.’ Not to be overshadowed by my excitement to graduate, I was also fairly certain that I was ready to take on the Miss North Carolina stage just one last time.

I was missing something though. I prayed about this and tossed it over in my mind. I knew that I had always wanted to share my personal story about mental illness as my community service platform, but I wasn’t sure how it would be received. Would people judge me? Would they think that I would be incapable of the pressures and responsibilities of being Miss North Carolina if I disclosed information that made me look weak?

As I continued to meditate on these questions, I got a phone call in July that rocked my world. If what I was looking for was some kind of sign, some kind of extra push, that lightening shock of motivation; this was it. In short, the woman on the other end of the phone told me that my father was dying. He was dying because he self-medicated himself for the greater part of his life in order to escape from his mental illnesses. He quite literally drank himself to death. I sat by my father’s bedside, and in his last hours of life I knew, looking into his eyes, that I did not have to lose him this way. He did not have an incurable disease. He did not have a horrible accident. He was slipping away in hospice at the age of 57 because he was too ashamed to get help, and by the time he knew he needed it, he was quite literally drowning in his own solution to his illness.

After losing my dad, my first instinct was to crawl into bed, feel sorry for myself, and mope around all day. But what good is that? When I wasn’t sure what else to do, I wrote a blog about my dad and his story. (You can read it here.) It went nothing short of viral. I credit this solely to the topic of the blog: Mental Illness. People were, surprisingly enough to me, overwhelmingly receptive to my plea that the conversation surrounding mental illness HAS to change in order for those suffering to pursue help. Stigma is a silencer, but support is a healer.

My conclusion was now more clear than ever: I had a responsibility to share this story. The decision to change my platform to Mental Illness Awareness was blazingly obvious. It no longer mattered if people judged me. It no longer mattered how people would view me, because that’s the whole point- that viewpoints have GOT to change. And here was my opportunity to do it.

Less than a month after I lost my dad, I took a deep breath, put final signatures on my paperwork, polished my talent, and took to the Miss Statesville stage. In my interview, I was asked the very question that I had worried so much about: Would my personal experiences with mental illness impede my ability to do my job? Would I be able to handle the title of Miss Statesville, Miss North Carolina, even Miss America?

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Yes. Yes, I could handle it. I know because I have seen myself thrive in this organization. People with mental illness thrive in recovery with the support of a community. The support I have gathered from my experience with this organization has inspired me to heal, and now that my story is public, I am more inspired than ever.

I was also asked this question: If I could go back and tell my 9-year-old self one thing, what would it be? (We had discussed that this was the age at which I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression).

“I would tell myself that although I didn’t understand it at the time, experiencing the struggle of mental illness would be necessary for me to relate to other people that I would one day be able to help.”

When the Miss Statesville crown was placed onto my head, I had the overwhelming realization that so many the events of my life that I had not previously understood to be necessary were culminating in this moment. My battle with mental illness as a child too young to even understand what was happening; Growing up without a father; Watching my father die in front of me after a lifelong battle with his own mental illnesses. Why did these things happen to me? I have asked myself this question more times than I can count. But now I know: Because it’s not about me. It’s about helping other people understand that the story of mental illness does not have to end in devastation, violence, or death.2015_Statesville_1637

So how does one change the mind of society? One person at a time. If we as a society change the way we think and talk about mental illness, the stigma will slowly fade away.


 

This is how it works:

Change your own perception.

Change the conversation.

#ChangeTheStory.

How Can I Help #ChangeTheStory?

I will be distributing green Mental Illness Awareness bands that read “Mental Illness Awareness #ChangeTheStory.”

  1. Every person who slides this band onto their wrist is taking a pledge to change the way they perceive mental illness.
  2. When someone asks what your bracelet is for, you have the opportunity to change the conversation.
  3. You can share photos of your band with the hash tag #ChangeTheStory to connect all of your pledges in a unanimous show of support.
  4. I will not require any type of donation for you to have an arm band. I would love nothing more than to see as many people as possible proudly wearing them! However, if you would like to take your pledge one step further, you can make a donation to the National Alliance on Mental Illness of North Carolina- an organization that provides support and awareness services for North Carolinians- when you receive your arm band. Donations can be made online here, or through me personally.
  5. Contact [email protected]gmail.com for more information about how to get arm bands for yourself or a group that you are a part of, and/or to get more information about the #ChangeTheStory initiative.

In closing: My name is Katie Knowles. I am a college graduate. I am Miss Statesville 2015. I am a dance teacher. I am a daughter, friend, and mentor. I have also battled depression and anxiety for the greater part of my life. My mental illness does not define me any more than it would if I had diabetes or any other medical illnesses. And I’m asking for your help.

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Together, we can #ChangeTheStory.

Katie Knowles
Hi there! My name is Katie Knowles, and I enjoy telling people’s stories. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone deserves a happy ending. I started my fight for those happy endings in 2014 with the ‘Change The Story: Mental Illness Awareness’ campaign. Since the launch of Change The Story, as a local titleholder within the Miss America Organization, I have reached thousands of people through speaking engagements and though my internationally read blog, Raise Her Voice. I currently work in Public Relations and as a dance teacher in my home state of North Carolina. For information on booking speaking engagements, guest blogging, or more information on Change The Story, contact [email protected].

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