SALT LAKE CITY — In her fight against the stigma of mental illness, Michelle Vance sometimes reveals details of her personal journey, including homelessness, substance abuse and errors in judgment typical of teenagers or young adults.
Vance, 24, says she willingly shares her experiences with other youths struggling with mental illness because her story has evolved into a message of hope and recovery.
“As a teen, I struggled daily with substance use and behavioral health problems,” she said. “After a close friend died by suicide, I decided it was time to get help."
Through the process of personal discovery and recovery, Vance started volunteering with National Alliance on Mental Illness Utah in 2009. In June 2012, NAMI Utah hired Vance as its youth facilitator. She coordinates activities of NAMI's youth council. She also advocates for youths in the Division of Child and Family Services programs and teaches them to advocate for themselves.
"People have misconceptions about the people who struggle with mental health and substance abuse and also misconceptions about youth in foster care and juvenile justice," Vance said. "(My job) is breaking down stigma because so many youth in those systems are really great people. They have potential to do great things. I do that by using my own story and my own experiences to show that is true."
Next week, Vance will be recognized for her work during the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's annual program devoted to children’s mental health awareness.
She is one of four young adult leaders selected from across the county who have benefited from peer support and provide peer support to other young adults. Vance will travel to Washington, D.C., to receive an award and address a live audience of nearly 7,000 people.
Vance said she is honored by the recognition, but that mentoring youths who are struggling with mental illness and substance abuse has its own rewards.
"It totally makes it worthwhile when people take the time to say, 'This part of a program helped me,' or 'This was great for me.' That’s always cool to note those small accomplishments and making sure to celebrate the little things," she said.
Ming Wang, program manager with the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, said Vance's input and advice help guide the state's efforts in serving youths in DCFS programs.
“Michelle has been instrumental in helping us move in the right direction and expand the focus of our programs and services to ensure we are best meeting the needs of children and young adults in Utah,” Wang said.
Vance said she readily connects with other youths who have mental illnesses because she has had many of the same experiences. She has been in foster care and experienced homelessness for about six months, which included periods of couch surfing and living in her car.
The suicide of a close friend who had been involved in youth advocacy work was a turning point in her own recovery, Vance said.
"When I decided the only person who was going to control where I was going to go with my life was me, I just really focused on myself and what I wanted," she said.
Vance is completing her associate degree at Salt Lake Community College and is a certified peer specialist, a person in recovery who has undergone training to help others undergoing substance abuse or mental health treatment regain control over their lives and recovery process.
Once she graduates from SLCC, Vance plans to attend the University of Utah to begin work on an undergraduate degree in social work.
Eventually, she'd like to work in public policy.
Meanwhile, she'll continue to advocate for youths and to teach them to speak for themselves.
Vance says she now understands that good can come from sharing her story. Her own experiences should also be a boon to her future career choices.
"Once you’ve embraced the things that could harm you or the things you’re unsure about, once you embrace them and make them your own, then nobody can really criticize you about that. Nobody can say things that hurt you because it’s something you’ve accepted about yourself," she said.
More important, Vance's experiences enable her to see the best in other people, she says.
"I can look at anybody and I can see their individual worth. I try to see their potential, what they bring to a situation or any aspect of life and appreciate that," she said. "I kind of feel bad for people who don’t look at the positive side of things, who want to be negative and want to create a hostile environment. I just want to be accepting. I think I’m modeling that."