By Nick Erickson
Even as paranoia and insomnia scrambled her brain to the point where she literally couldn’t read, Dana Johnston knew she had a story to share.
It was 2006, and light was fading on a life that seemed to be shining brightly. The current George Washington University graduate student had built a solid enough foundation working for a Fortune 500 company that she and her partner moved from the D.C. area to Florida with hopes of starting their own business—a gaming café.
Then, one night while Johnston was home alone, an intoxicated and confused individual tried entering their new house. Although law enforcement resolved the situation without anyone harmed, Johnston couldn’t fall back asleep. And then she couldn’t the following night. Nor the next night. She went to a doctor, who prescribed sleeping pills. That didn’t work.
Her mind became erratic. She was seeing things in her head and acting out in ways she never did. It eventually led to a trip to a psychiatric ward of a hospital, where she felt more like a prisoner than patient.
She was desperate for an answer for this sudden jolt in life, and she finally received it months later with a bipolar disorder diagnosis.
While she and her family deployed the best battle plan they could, it was just hard to execute. Even in 2006, discussions around mental health weren’t as commonplace as they are today. There wasn’t a playbook to follow. There weren’t many firsthand accounts from people who had battled the disorder. The resources and hotlines weren’t as available as they are now. And she could feel the stigma. Her thoughts turned dark with suicidal ideation, which she acted on one night. Despite those in her support system doing whatever they could to help, she felt so very alone.
“I didn’t know anyone who had been through what I went through,” Johnston said. “Not a single soul.”
It seemed impossible to fathom during the moments she felt most lost that she’d become a mental health advocate through the written word. But a decade-and-a-half after her first admittance to the psychiatric ward, that’s exactly what she is.
Johnston authored the book Shine Bright: Seeking Daylight in Darkness, which published in June. It’s an encapsulation of her own journey battling bipolar disorder. She also has a blog, Daylight and Darkness. She hopes people battling mental wellness can use her as the inspiration that she never had.
Johnston has long been at the point in her journey where she’s returned to the workforce—even though a doctor once told her to apply for permanent disability. She is an associate director with the Infectious Disease Society of America, and she is pursuing an interdisciplinary master’s degree at GW with concentrations in management and leadership combined with a marketing and brand management certificate. She aspires to move up the leadership chain.
But she feels extra motivated to share her story now that she’s surrounded by young people in their early 20s, which was her age in 2006. She wants to make her own battle as visible as possible.
“I have a huge commitment to people being well, feeling well, finding joy and finding the resources they need to make that happen,” Johnston said. “What I hope I can convey is that if you’re going through this, you can get help, you can heal and you can thrive, even if you’ve been through these things in your life.”
Johnston believes the destigmatized language of “it’s OK to not be OK” is an important first step, and she is using her story to try and spring awareness to action. She believes people owe it to themselves to seek the help they need, whether it’s through therapy, books or other resources. At GW, the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), located within the Student Health Center in the University Student Center, is one such resource that serves as the primary mental health service for GW students. Services are free, confidential and individualized.
To access CAPS services, students are encouraged to come to the Student Health Center any weekday or weekend from noon-4 p.m. for walk-in hours to have an initial consultation. No appointments are needed for these consultations, which last 30 minutes and allow for the student and therapist to collaboratively determine treatment goals and needs.
Students are also encouraged to sign up for Silvercloud, an electronic mental health platform.
In a fast-paced and competitive society, Johnston encourages students to find a proper balance and not to feel pressure from the outside world to be something other than themselves. Johnston advised making time for healthy activities, which for her include taking walks, cooking meals, listening to music, drinking water and continuing to build relationships.
If someone told Johnston during the dark days of 2006 that she’d one day not only hold meaningful employment but also attend graduate school to accrue management and leadership skills, she wouldn’t have believed it. Yet here she is in the thralls of her first semester at GW.
“If you find a sliver of hope and a sliver of possibility in my story,” she said, “then may it help propel you forward, and maybe tomorrow you’ll feel able to do more than you did today.”
If a student feels they are experiencing a mental health emergency, they can come to the Student Health Center or call at any point during business hours as there is always a counselor available for crises. If a student needs to speak with a counselor after business hours, there is always a counselor on-call that is accessible by calling 202-994-5300 and pressing 2 for counseling after hours.
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7 support for people in distress. Their number is 988.