Chatting with “Inside Our Minds” advocate Alyssa Cypher

WP_20170122_007I occasionally meet extraordinary people doing extraordinary things. I intend on making this the subject of a future article, but for now, I would like to introduce you to one of them. Her name is Alyssa Cypher (pictured left) and at the young age of twenty-six, she is one year into an initiative called ‘Inside Our Minds.’

Her journey began in college, although she has climbed Mount Everest Base Camp and drove across the United States and back with her dog Esra. She attended the University of Pittsburgh and by her educational completion, Alyssa had earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology, Masters of Public Administration in Policy Research and Analysis with a Minor in Security and Intelligence Studies. A pretty impressive haul for any normal person, but there’s a difference here. Alyssa achieved all of this while diagnosed with two mental health conditions and considered disabled.

While in college, she was confronted with so much stigma, that she felt ready to explode. This is when she took to social media and did indeed explode. Alyssa wrote about her condition, people’s reaction to it and the hurt stigma causes all people who deal with mental health disorders. Then it happened.

“I was so overwhelmed with the positive responses I was getting by simply sharing,” Alyssa recalls. “It was then that I decided to create a platform for other people to share their stories. It was a mandate to help others.”

Following college, she began to lay out the platform for her social experiment. Her initial job was with a gas and energy company, but she was laid off when the company started to downsize.

“The layoff was kind of a gift. With my condition, pent up in an office space and working within a forty hour structure, it was very difficult,” said Alyssa.

So she went to work with her project full time. The nature of the work puts her in the field with flexible hours in a way that works in concert with keeping stress off of her conditions. Alyssa secured a grant from *The Sprout Fund and hit the ground running.

The project consists of a couple of elements. The first is an anonymous and uncensored story portion. Alyssa goes out in the field around the Pittsburgh area interviewing mental health consumers. ‘Consumer’ is the clinical term for those who have been diagnosed with a mental health condition. The story is an A-Z recount of the person’s life from when they first started exhibiting symptoms to the present day. Since these stories can be quite lengthy, she then sits down with the person after compiling the story to shape it up for public consumption. Once ready, it is posted on the ‘Inside Our Minds’ website. These stories are raw and honest and are incredible to read.

“Through the vicarious sharing, we hope to reach those who can’t share or aren’t at that point in their treatment,” Alyssa said. “It can be a powerful recovery tool and offer hope to those who struggle.”

The next component is the ‘Inside Our Minds’ podcast. The podcast features a panel of what Alyssa calls the “true experts,” consumers who speak on specific topics. They range from anything like living with bipolar disorder to managing anxiety. The podcasts are also open, raw and unexpurgated.

In the early summer, she is planning a live event where people can submit stories and also come on stage and present a personal story of their own.

These are the main activities she has put together for year one.

“I work on one activity at a time. As I accomplish one, I move on to the next and see if something may present itself. I would definitely like to do more live events,” Alyssa said.

WP_20170122_008Currently, she works with two other people, Max and Kate out of the Work Hard Pittsburgh studio near Mount Washington, (pictured right).  I asked her about any particular challenges she faces with doing this kind of work, as it can be pretty intense dealing with people’s emotions.

“It can be exhausting some days. I spend the day with someone listening to their stories and they can be pretty overwhelming. Then I have to go home and still have to deal with my disorder and run the day-to-day mechanics of the business. But the work is so necessary, I shake it off and press on.”

I will be following up with Alyssa as ‘Inside Our Minds’ continues its journey. FMI: insideourminds.org or follow them on Facebook.

Sprout-Fund_green*The Sprout Fund enriches the Pittsburgh region’s vitality by engaging citizens, amplifying voices, supporting creativity and innovation, and cultivating connected communities. The Sprout Fund is Pittsburgh’s leading agency supporting innovative ideas, catalyzing community change, and making our region a better place to live, work, play, and raise a family.

Sprout provides critical financial support for projects and programs in the early stages of development-when just a small amount of investment has the potential to yield big results in the community. Sprout projects create new initiatives, events, and organizations that help citizens take action on a pressing issue or enhance the cultural vitality of the Pittsburgh region.

Directed by a board of civically engaged leaders, led by its co-founders, supported by a dedicated staff, and with strong relationships to many community organizations and regional stakeholders, Sprout has worked successfully across political and geographic boundaries to make hundreds of community-decided investments in early-stage projects, organizations, innovators, and activities.

Learn more and get involved at sproutfund.org.

Story by Fred Terling for Pennsylvania Bridges