Although it was one of the most difficult times in his life, Andrew Steward has never been shy about talking about his battle with mental illness.
Steward, a student in the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, has shared his story, and spoken out against the stigma surrounding mental illness, at TEDx events (including one at DU in 2011), legislative meetings and community events. This year he was honored with the National Council for Behavioral Health’s Inspiring Hope Award, which recognizes individuals who have shown extraordinary tenacity in battling serious mental illness and who are living full lives and pursuing their goals.
“I feel like ever since I’ve been at DU I have been empowered more,” says Steward, who received a BA in music at DU before being accepted to the social work school. “I’m not just living under this cloud of stigma, but I really do feel more empowered to more confidently share my experiences and my story for the benefit of helping others who are still under that cloud or even really suffering like I was at one time.”
Steward was a 19-year-old college student at Biola University in California when the combined stress of classwork and a multitude of extracurricular activities resulted in an onset of psychosis that at its worst point caused him to hallucinate lakes of fire in his house and a snake coiled on his chest, biting at his heart.
Steward was diagnosed with schizophrenia and retreated to his family home in New Mexico to recover. He eventually received an Eli Lilly Reintegration Scholarship — which helps individuals diagnosed with mental illness begin or resume their educations — to study flute at DU. But it was his minor in psychology that opened the door to social work, which is now where his passion lies. That’s largely because he can relate much of his work to his personal experiences. While preparing to graduate in June, Steward has been interning at a Kaiser Permanente memory clinic, where he works with patients suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Steward says his personal experience allows him to respond to newly diagnosed patients in an empathetic way.
“When the nurse practitioner I work with diagnoses someone with Alzheimer’s disease, I [can tell] them from a real place that ‘this is something we are diagnosing you with so that you and your family can clearly understand what you’re going through and plan for the future.’ [I tell them] ‘this is not something you have to identify with, it’s not who you are,’” he says.
Steward also is in a training program to become a certified music practitioner, which will allow him to provide therapeutic music at the bedside of patients in hospital and hospice settings. It’s a specialty he began exploring as an undergraduate, when he volunteered at a hospice as a musician.
“Just being present with people who are dying, in my experience, is the greatest privilege in life,” he says. “It is such an honor to spend people’s final moments with them. My experiences with actively dying hospice patients — people wouldn’t necessarily assume this, but for me, those nights I spent with them are the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced.”
Steward flew to Washington, D.C., earlier this month to accept his award and the $10,000 grant that goes with it. He plans to donate the money to BringChange2Mind, a nonprofit dedicated to fighting stigma and discrimination around mental illness.
Though Steward says he still has to be careful of taking on too much, he knows he’s capable of handling much more than he was nine years ago.
“I am not worried I’m going to get sick anymore,” he says. “I know that I’m a very sensitive person, and through my social work program I’ve developed a lot of self-awareness. I really do believe that my own insight into what I’ve gone through and now being able to apply it to helping other people in relatable situations — that self-knowledge has empowered me to take care of myself in a way that will keep me relatively balanced and healthy. I feel strong about that.”