Virginia Beach woman with bipolar disorder uses her own story to raise funds for advocacy

February 17, 2017 | By Elizabeth Simpson

Kim Ashby has some bedrock tools to raise money for mental health advocacy:

Persistence. A network of friends, family and co-workers. And most important, her own story.

“I have a mental illness myself,” she told me at a National Alliance on Mental Illness function in Virginia Beach last week. “I have bipolar disorder and depression. I would have mood swings and get depressed and angry and upset.”

So began my chat with Ashby, the top fundraiser in the state for the Virginia NAMI Walk in October. She raised $6,000, and was honored at an event at the Virginia Museum of Contemporary Art last week.

Ashby, 37, was just one of the honorees, who ran the gamut from high school students who raised money through a “Nickels for NAMI” campaign to police officers who have received training to work with people with mental illness to businesses that stepped up to fund classes, flyers and brochures.

It takes a large crew to tackle a big issue .

I want to focus on Ashby because she’s truly on the front lines of fighting mental illness, day in and day out. We tend to hear about the people the system has failed. The success stories outnumber those, but the stigma of mental illness often keeps people from talking about the small victories.

Not Ashby: “I’m not scared to tell my story.”

Ashby, from Virginia Beach, was diagnosed with depression in her early 20s, and put on medication that worsened her symptoms. She became suicidal, and at times, so angry she wanted to kill her parents.

“I heard voices for a long time,” she said. “I didn’t tell my parents; I kept it to myself. I didn’t want them to know.”

Those voices were so disturbing, though, that she landed in a psychiatric hospital when she was 25, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

After that, she was put on a medication that put her on a more even keel.

But the medication also had side effects, such as weight gain. She went from 125 to 185 pounds. During the past few years, she’s also tackled that problem by walking her dog, Kai, joining a health club and cutting back on sodas.

She’s lost 20 pounds.

At one time, she tried working a full-time job, but found it too stressful, so for the past decade she’s worked in food prep at an Applebee’s, which she enjoys. She also volunteers with a first-grade teacher. And she spends time at the Beach House, a place where people with mental illness can socialize and learn about resources.

So, no, this is not a story that will land her on the front page of the paper, but I hope it will cast some light here for others living with mental illness.

“My hope and dream is to move out one day and live with a roommate or by myself,” Ashby said. “But I’m not ready yet. I like living with my parents.”

Another NAMI supporter I met at last week’s event was Tyler Corson, a Virginia Commonwealth University doctoral student who is conducting a study about caregiver stress of those caring for people with serious mental illness. If you’re 18 or older and want to participate in the anonymous online survey (http://tinyurl.com/h3snog8), it will take about 15 minutes. For more information, email Corson at corsontr@vcu.edu.

A free NAMI class in Norfolk is starting March 25 for people with mental illness. The 10-week “Peer-to-Peer Program” is led by trained mentors who have experienced mental illness. The classes will meet from 1 to 3 p.m. at the Mary D. Pretlow Library, 111 W. Ocean View Ave., Conference Room 2. Call 757-622-1664 to register.

A regional food council is launching Feb. 28 to address food needs and ways to improve the health of the community. The American Heart Association and Eastern Virginia Medical School are hosting the “Lettuce Begin! Planning for our Community’s Food Future.” Mark Winne, author of “Closing the Food Gap” and “Food Rebels, Guerrilla Gardeners, and Smart-Cookin’ Mamas,” will lead the presentation at Dominion Enterprises in Norfolk. The event, which begins at 8 a.m., is free but registration is required. For more information, email michelle.charters@heart.org or call 757-628-2600.