SHORELINE - Aislin Percival was 9 when she became trapped on a terrifying emotional roller coaster. For the next 10 years, Percival’s confused mind carried her to increasingly manic highs and increasingly depressing lows.
Haunted by suicidal thoughts, Percival said she eventually tried to take her own life “at least twice,” and careened between being a straight-A student and “the girl getting drunk every other night and climbing in a friend’s window.”
Friends and family attributed Percival’s emotional ups and downs to fallout from the divorce of her parents and later to teenage angst, but no one recognized what it really was — bipolar disorder.
Percival, a member of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in West Seattle, will speak about her experiences during “Mental Health Connections: Education, Awareness and Healing in the Holy Spirit,” slated May 27 at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline (see box for details).
The event is meant to open a wider door to spiritual support and treatment resources for people with mental illness and their loved ones, who often don’t know how to get help or who are too ashamed to seek it, according to Anisa Ralls, who helped start the mental health ministry at St. Luke’s and is a social worker in the emergency department at Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland.
Aislin Percival enjoys time with her mother, Michelle Schwaegler, at the Chihuly Garden and Glass museum in Seattle. Percival, who suffers from bipolar disorder, will speak about her experiences at a May 27 event at St. Luke Parish in Shoreline. Photo: Courtesy Aislin Percival
“People will freely share that they have cancer and they’ll go to their church and their community for support and prayer,” Ralls said, “but if somebody is suffering from a mental illness, depression or something else ... they don’t want to talk about it.”
St. Luke’s mental health ministry strives to remove the stigma of mental illness and barriers to assistance through outreach, support groups and events like the Mental Health Connection. Everyone involved in the ministry has personal experience with mental health disorders and some work in the mental health field, Ralls said.
“We want people to feel welcome and to know they can get the same support they would get if they were suffering from any other kind of illness in their life,” Ralls said.
Percival didn’t get the help she needed until her roommate at Seattle Pacific University became so troubled by Percival’s extreme highs and lows that she urged her to visit the campus counseling center. The alarm bells included the time Percival’s roommate awoke to find that Percival had stayed up all night, manically decorating their entire apartment with elaborate paper snowflakes. “It wasn’t a small apartment and it wasn’t Christmas,” Percival recalled.
Visiting the campus counseling center put Percival on the path to diagnosis and treatment. She’s been “a girl on a mission” ever since, determined to not only take care of herself, but also to help others get the timely assistance that escaped her.
“As a child, I didn’t know how to say what I was experiencing,” said Percival, now 26. “If I would have got help sooner ... I may have been able to recover faster and not experience some of the deep depression I did later on.”
Percival volunteers with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) to integrate mental health education into parochial schools by sharing her personal story. She recently arranged for NAMI to present its “Ending the Silence” mental illness education program at Our Lady of Guadalupe School, which she attended.
Percival said she bounced between times when she questioned her faith (“If God existed, he would let me die”) and times when her faith was “all that got me through.”
Ultimately, a combination of faith and treatment enabled Percival to earn a degree in health sciences, pursue a career in social work and regain control of her life.
“It’s not just about faith and religion and it’s not just about mental health treatment,” she said. “Going to Mass and praying can be positive for your mental health (and) mental health treatment can be positive for your ability to deepen your relationship with God.”
Attend the event
“Mental Health Connections: Education, Awareness and Healing in the Holy Spirit” is slated from 1-5 p.m. May 27 at St. Luke Parish, 322 N. 175th St., Shoreline. Admission is free.
Speakers include Chuck Valen, a Vietnam veteran; Deacon Jim Decker; young adults; and mental health professionals, who will share personal stories and provide information about mental illness. Those attending will have opportunities to ask questions and engage in group discussions.
The event includes an exhibit of original artwork depicting stories of mental illness and healing. The afternoon concludes with the option of attending St. Luke’s 5 p.m. Vigil Mass, which will include prayers for healing.