A Stigma of One’s Own


Thanks to my 800th follower, new blogger Jess Melancholia of The Bipolar Compass!

Sometimes when I’m inspired and sufficiently caffeinated, I’ll climb onto my virtual soapbox and contact an organization that can help promote women’s mental health awareness and/or services.

When my efforts have been successful, I feel wonderful. I’ve gotten numerous “Letters to the Editor” published in local papers and several national magazines. I asked the founder of the acclaimed website Postpartum Progress to amend its informational pages to include the PMAD (perinatal mood and anxiety disorder) bipolar, peripartum onset (postpartum bipolar). I was invited to provide the pertinent information myself! It felt great to be heard and treated with respect by Katherine Stone, founder of Postpartum Progress

It takes energy, patience and time to follow-through with any “soapbox project”, big or small, so I must feel motivated when undertaking my missions!

My latest mission didn’t have a satisfying outcome – far from it.

Last month while surfing the internet, I came across an organization called “A Room of Her Own“. This nonprofit’s logo incorporates the beautiful profile of the brilliant author Virginia Woolf.


I read the mission and thought it was awesome – check it out:

Founded in 2000, A Room of Her Own (AROHO) is the preeminent nonprofit organization working on behalf of women writers today.  AROHO’s mission is to inspire, fund, and champion works of art and literature by women. AROHO has channeled more than 1,000,000 publicly gifted dollars into new awards, fellowships, and life-changing opportunities for women and has inspired thousands of books and works of art by women.
While advancing Virginia Woolf’s belief that “women need money and a room of their own if they are to write,” AROHO also works to cultivate an environment of collective fellowship in which creative women bravely unearth, articulate, and contribute transformational literature and art.

I read AROHO’s Virginia Woolf bio page. It has been widely acknowledged that this English novelist had manic depression and died by suicide. The AROHO Virginia Woolf bio page (and the rest of the AROHO website) didn’t mention Woolf’s mental illness.

Of Woolf’s death the bio simply stated,

“Woolf took her own life on March 28, 1941 at the age of 59.”

I disagreed with AROHO’s wording “took her own life” and the implicit message behind that sentence. Suicide is not so much a choice; one’s death is not something you “take”, but a last-resort action to cease agony. Agony that one could never imagine unless she had experienced it. Agony caused by bipolar disorder.

If AROHO named what Woolf lived with and died from — bipolar disorder– website readers unaware of Woolf’s mental illness could be informed. Moreover, website readers who suffer with bipolar could take comfort in the fact that AROHO is doing its small part in acknowledging Woolf’s mental illness instead of burying their well-funded heads under the sand.

While I understand that AROHO is not a women’s mental health nonprofit, I felt compelled to email them about the bio page and present another idea. After reviewing their financial grants page I thought it would be incredible if they could provide a grant for talented women writers struggling with mental illness to realize their literary ambitions. I know that sounds off-the-hook, but why not.

Why not?

My email, in typical Birth of a New Brain fashion, rambled, but I knew that if my email could possibly help another writer achieve her dream, who cares how I came across! I also believed that Virginia Woolf would like my suggestion of how to help women writers living with the same mental illness that she had who, in her words, “need money” in order to write their own life-changing novels, poems and creative nonfiction work.

In any case, Woolf wouldn’t want other women to be affected by the stigma of mental illness. 

Here’s my email:


Dear AROHO Staff,

I was excited to come across your website!

I’m a writer living with bipolar disorder. I facilitate free support groups for women with bipolar disorder. These women are extraordinarily creative when they are not debilitated by bipolar depression. One of our members is a New York Times columnist, and other members are writers, artists and musicians.

I spotted Virginia Woolf’s profile in your beautiful logo and I was moved by your choice of the novelist, and by your unique vision.

I couldn’t help but notice there was no mention of this brilliant author’s manic depression/bipolar disorder in her bio nor elsewhere on the website.

I believe that through briefly noting this information about Virginia Woolf it would be a service to those who come across your website.

In adding just a few words, you’ll bring awareness to bipolar disorder and help de-stigmatize a mood disorder that’s still often swept under the proverbial carpet. As you know, Woolf didn’t simply take her life but she did so due to a brain disease beyond her control. Numerous female writers struggle with the same mental illness that Woolf did; so many female writers are survivors of suicide attempts/ideations.

These women would value AROHO acknowledging Woolf’s mood challenge. I’m sure that some of them unfamiliar with her writing would be profoundly inspired to explore Woolf’s entire body of work.

I also thought it would revolutionary if there was an AROHO award for female authors who live with bipolar disorder – this is definitely out-of-the-box in terms of literary awards, but don’t you think Woolf might have been in favor of such an opportunity for women who faced what she did?

Thanks for your consideration of my suggestions. I look forward to hearing from you.


warm regards,

Dyane Leshin-Harwood

Now my email may sound like I’m barking up the wrong tree. My whole premise may sound ridiculous to you; that’s okay because my skin is growing thicker ever since those Facebook rejections I wrote about. But I definitely thought I’d hear back from AROHO. I thought I’d have the courtesy of a short reply, especially since I immediately received an auto-reply email stating AROHO would get back to me within a few days with a “thoughtful answer”.  

I never heard back. And I knew they received my email and couldn’t, for whatever reason, handle writing me back. (However, I noticed that their staff had plenty of time to tweet ’til the cows come home. )

Wait a minute.

I think I know what the reason might be!


Yes, stigma. My gut tells me that’s what’s behind my email being blown off. 

It’s a shame. I’ve worked for three nonprofits, all of which had much lower budgets/funding than AROHO, and despite their financial restraints and small staff, we never ignored an email or phone call.

There’s a word for this practice that I learned working at Friends of the Santa Cruz Public Libraries, Friends of the Santa Cruz State Parks and The College of the Botanical Healing Arts – it’s called CLASS.

Class is what Virginia Woolf had plenty of until the day she put on her overcoat, filled its pockets with stones, walked into the River Ouse in England near her home, and drowned herself.

Class is what, sadly, AROHO lacks. 

I could contact them again, and again. Sometimes perseverance does pay off, but I have a feeling that AROHO is in need to extensive sensitivity training that I can’t give them. I’m saving my energy to support and promote nonprofits that don’t stigmatize women writers with bipolar disorder.


Dyane’s memoir Birth of a New Brain – Healing from Postpartum Bipolar Disorder with a foreword by Dr. Walker Karraa (author of the acclaimed book Transformed by Postpartum Depression: Women’s Stories of Trauma and Growth) will be published by Post Hill Press next year.