An interview with Joey Wilson, NAMI Seattle Board of Director

By Aryam Kfleyesus, Victoria Korohod, James Lee, Maya Vora, and Felicia Yeh, University of Washington Bothell School of Business

Joey Wilson’s calm and genuine presence greeted us through the Zoom room as he prepared to answer our questions about his valuable insights into mental health. Wearing a blue and turquoise jacket with a hood, his camera was set up to show only above his chest. Joey’s composed demeanor set the tone from the outset, creating a relaxed environment. His steady voice and unhurried speech further contributed to the tranquil ambiance. Additionally, the setting, perhaps in a cozy living room on a comfortable couch with a lamp behind him, added to the overall sense of ease. As he began with brief responses, introducing himself and his involvement with NAMI Seattle, we witnessed a remarkable transformation in Joey’s demeanor throughout the interview. He evolved from initial shyness to a confident and outgoing engagement in dedicated conversations about his journey as a board member with NAMI Seattle while living with schizophrenia.

Joey is a remarkable individual whose story is defined by triumph over adversity. Diagnosed with schizophrenia at 19, Joey’s journey is an inspiring tale of resilience and success. Here we explore Joey Wilson’s incredible process of living with his condition — a story that inspires us to overcome obstacles and challenge societal norms. Join us as we celebrate his resilience, community spirit, and achievements.

What is your day-to-day life like? What are your hobbies and favorite things to do?

JW:  Every day I wake up and take my medication, I always take my medication. My favorite things are helping others, playing sports, walking around my neighborhood, listening [to] music, [and] playing video games. I walk ten miles a day; [the] first thing I do in the morning is take my walk around my neighborhood, [to] clear my mind.

Can you explain what the diagnosis process was like? In what ways did your life change after being diagnosed with schizophrenia?

JW: The [diagnosis] process was very stressful, I wish there [was] an easy answer to addressing mental health conditions [and] mental health episodes. Being diagnosed with schizophrenia has been a huge blessing for me. Like [the] majority of teenagers, being a teenager is one of the toughest times of your life, [and] things from teenage years often lead to adulthood and last for most [of] your life. I was a very troubled teenager [and] I was lost, [so] being diagnosed with schizophrenia really gave me a chance to reflect on life and made me calm down and realize how precious and valuable life is.

What pushed you to decide to take some steps forward on your path to bettering your mental health?

JW: Being diagnosed with schizophrenia at … age 12 and age 19, gave me [the] decision to fight for my life or lose all hope [and] throw in the towel. I’m thankful I never gave up, [and] I fought so hard for my life. Having schizophrenia you have to think one step ahead, it’s like a game of chess or checkers. 

Joey continued to explain how he used different strategies and tools to help with adapting to schizophrenia. He added his use of the ten positives strategy [surrounding yourself with positive people, meditating, expressing gratitude, taking care of personal health and other connections to self/others], and emphasized the importance of staying close to family, mentors, friends, and his community. These tactics have helped Joey improve his mental health over the years.

What made you decide to further your education? Did Bellevue give you any support as you took classes and if they did, how did it help you?

JW: A dream of mine was to go to college, [and]  Bellevue College has the Occupational Life Skills (OLS) for individuals with disabilities. The OLS program teachers are very helpful and encouraging and [are] always there to help. The OLS program was life-changing for me [and] so many positives came from going through the Occupational Life Skills program at Bellevue College.

How did you first get involved with NAMI Seattle, and what do you do for them now?

JW: I started as a volunteer doing yard work for NAMI about 7, 8 years ago for 3 summers in a row… . I helped around the office, and put … books on the shelf. I started out … mowing their grass or picking weeds on the ground, or gardening, or putting books on the shelf, or whatever they really needed help with in the yard. I did a lot of yard work for them. …that’s how I got connected with [them]. I do a lot of public speaking for things [for example] I spoke at my group home fundraiser last year. [I am also] … applying for a national NAMI conference this year.

What was one of your proudest moments with NAMI?

JW:  I was on the big screen at a jumbotron…during halftime. You know, halftime at one of [the Seattle Kraken] games, and I was on the big screen. And they showed …some pictures and a guy [was] speaking about me and NAMI, and all they do for the community. … Yeah, it’s a very big honor…and the coolest thing was I got to invite like 20 friends with me [be]cause [NAMI gave] out a hundred tickets, I think…for that game. And I [brought] 20 friends with me, my family with me, and… that was really cool. 

Joey then went on to speak about a documentary he starred in about his life titled “The Voice Inside” produced by Felicia Thomas and Isla Roberson, CEO’s of Bright Eyed Entertainment. It discussed living with schizophrenia with the people in his life. He mentioned his mentors; Jeremiah Bainbridge from NAMI, his college teacher, and his mother. He then proceeded to tell the story of his day in his life, life with schizophrenia, and presented ways the general community of mental health operates and assists others.

How do you think we can improve our understanding and treatment of schizophrenia?  

JW:  I think when someone who has schizophrenia is often thought of as being violent, which is not the case. It’s a case-by-case basis, [and] having a mental health condition, [you’ll] get experimented on with different medications, [unfortunately,] the right medication can take years to find. … Individuals who live with mental illness are labeled and put into a category, and at times treated like [you’re] not human. … You can [still] succeed, live your dreams, and have [a] good life. Everyone should get that chance and not get left behind in the system and or stuck in institutions. … There’s hope and you can live a productive life even with the odds against you.

Joey’s first-person perspective shares more than life living with schizophrenia. He brought us to vulnerable instances showing how difficult trying medicines just to feel “more normal” is and the defenseless feelings to the world’s lens, labeling people like him as something else. His challenging life to adapt to society and continue living with his dreams prompted him to work harder and strive to live to his fullest. His faith and will to not only be positive, but also to embrace his differences to survive inspired us to be more brave and take risks to live the life of our dreams.

As we reflect on Joey’s story and his involvement with NAMI Seattle, it becomes evident that organizations like NAMI are instrumental in fostering understanding, empathy, and acceptance within our communities. By joining or donating to NAMI Seattle, we can contribute to initiatives promoting mental health awareness, providing support services, and advocating for policies prioritizing mental health care such as schizophrenia. Together, we can create a more inclusive and supportive environment where individuals like Joey can thrive and receive the assistance they need. Don’t forget to explore additional resources for further insights and support on mental health and advocacy. For more information, feel free to explore NAMI’s Instagram page.