Clarence Jordan, Person-First

As a 15-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, I know how combat situations, as well as other more basic aspects of military life, put unique stressors on those of us who serve as well as our families.

With the clarity of hindsight, I can say now that I struggled for many years with mental illness when I was active duty in the navy.

While the signs of a problem were there, and more than one person tried to point them out to me, I completely denied the problem at the time.

My mental illness ultimately led me to leave the military, and for nearly a decade, I bounced from one job to another and from city to city.

It wasn't until 1998 that I finally had to face the fact I had a problem. At the time, I was using alcohol and other drugs to keep from dealing with the realities of my life and that approach ultimately led me to trouble with the law.

I owe a debt of gratitude to the judge who gave me the choice of going to jail or going into treatment. It was the push I needed to start turning things around.

I went to the local community mental health center in Nashville and met with several doctors who evaluated my condition. I ultimately was diagnosed with major depression.

I stayed in treatment at that health center for another 12 months to work through the issues I was experiencing.

I'm living proof that having a mental illness does not mean that you can't live a happy, productive life. Since leaving that initial treatment, I've not only held responsible jobs but I've become actively involved with the NAMI, where I do training and advocacy work to help others achieve their potential.

It's important for people to realize that there are all different types and levels of mental illness and that the most important thing they can do if they think they have a problem is to step forward and talk to a mental health professional to find out.

I personally had no base of experience or knowledge about mental illness that would have led me to believe I had a problem. Furthermore, my personal "image" of someone with a mental illness when I was in the military was definitely not me.

I loved my time in the military, but I realize looking back that it was an environment that was not good for me. In addition to my own lack of awareness about mental illness, there was, at that time, a serious lack of any information about the topic provided through the military.

And it was definitely not something that soldiers talked about.

We need to continue our efforts to make sure that people understand that mental illnesses are real. And that they're treatable.

Through my work with NAMI, I've seen countless people overcome mental illness, and through appropriate treatment and management of their conditions, they go on to lead positive, meaningful lives.

I had a wonderful support network of family and friends who stood with me through my darkest hours and I will forever be grateful to them. I know it's not an easy journey, but it is journey that can be successful.

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