I live in an apartment complex in a busy part of my town. From my second-story balcony, I can see my neighbors coming and going from work, appointments, errands, and other activities. Although I get a glimpse of their daily lives, I don’t really know any of my neighbors on a personal level. The extent of my interactions with my neighbors consists of a polite “Hello, how are you?” or “Good day”, type exchanges. Sometimes I wonder what my neighbors notice about me.

I live a fairly isolated life, except for the occasional visit from my family. I look physically fit, neat and reasonably healthy. Although I am much less sociable, my state of mental health is not detectable outwardly. I often wonder how my neighbors would react if they knew I had schizophrenia.

Most people know that mental illness has an impact on a person’s thinking or behavior. However, due to the pervasive stigma surrounding mental illness, people may be unaware that mental health issues can be treated (usually with a combination of medication and therapy) – and people with mental illness can lead a normal and happy life.

I have often thought about what I would like to be able to communicate to my neighbours. My illness greatly affects my life — like any physical illness — but schizophrenia does not define me. If I could tell my neighbors about myself, here is what I would share:

I am not a danger

If my neighbors learned that I have schizophrenia, I would like them to know that I am not a danger to them. I would like to explain that negative portrayals of this condition in the media are misleading and sensationalistic; I don’t own a gun, I’m not wildly unpredictable, and I’m certainly not a serial killer, despite what crime dramas may suggest. In fact, research shows that I’m more likely to be the victim of a crime than the perpetrator.

Ultimately, I understand that the label of my diagnosis can be intimidating to people unfamiliar with serious mental illnesses, but I hope to start a dialogue and explain my situation. I would be happy to share my daily experience, from my symptoms to the medications I take.

I lead a productive and meaningful life

If my neighbors learned of my diagnosis, I would want them to see my complexity as a person. First, that I’m not a dangerous criminal, but more than that, I have a productive life as a writer and mental health advocate. I have learned and proven that words can be powerful if used in the right way. I use my voice as a spokesperson to educate people about the lived experience of serious mental illness. And I’m open to having difficult conversations; there’s no question about my mental illness that i’m afraid to answer, and if i don’t know, i do my best to find the answer.

My work goes beyond mental health advocacy. I would also like my neighbors to know that I am an American patriot; I am a veteran who served my country in the US military. I love that America is a country of diversity – and a big part of what makes us a great country is that we value the unique contributions of all of our citizens. And I have many contributions to offer.

I have similar hobbies, interests and needs

Although my life may seem different from that of my neighbors, we have a lot in common. From my balcony, I see some of my neighbors playing sports. I would like them to know that I have always enjoyed physical exercise. Specifically, I love playing basketball and would appreciate someone asking to play basketball on the new court near our apartments. I also like to work out and would like to have a training partner when I use the fitness center at our apartment complex. Not only is exercise fun, but it also helps me manage my symptoms.

Ultimately, I want my neighbors to know that I have the same emotional needs as everyone else. While they may not see many people coming in and out of my apartment, I want them to know that sometimes I like having company – just someone to hang out with or watch a football game. I have a large collection of vinyl records and would like to show them my jazz collection. I also love to cook and would love to cook for others, not just me. Maybe a neighbor and I could cook together. The combination of a home-cooked dinner and good jazz sounded like a wonderful evening to me.

I believe social connections are the solution

Those of us with a mental health diagnosis simply want to be seen for who we are and to feel understood when we encounter mental health issues. We are productive, well-meaning people who make a major contribution to our society every day. With one in four people affected by mental illness, it’s safe to say that people at all levels of society struggle every day to overcome the stigma that isolates us. I believe the solution lies in simply talking to those around us – to find the things we have in common.

I would jump at the chance to explore some of these commonalities with some of my neighbors.

Jason Jepson grew up in Virginia, but now lives in Myrtle Beach, SC, where he advocates for those diagnosed with serious mental illness. Jason was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder while drafted into the United States Army. He began his mental health advocacy with NAMI, where he received peer-to-peer certification, and has since continued to volunteer to help veterans who struggle with mental health issues. Jason has written two books, and his first-person account of everyday life with schizophrenia has been published in Schizophrenia Bulletin, an academic journal published by Oxford Press.