Xiomara Seide, mental-health advocate

Participation in Sacramento County’s anti-stigma mental health campaign has made Xiomara Seide the woman from the billboard

photo by evan E. Duran

It was a unique selfie that Xiomara Seide had taken. The busy working mom finally freed up some time to check out the billboard bearing her face, which was part of an anti-stigma campaign that Sacramento County’s Division of Behavioral Health Services rolled out three years ago. Using images of real folks, the campaign aims to dispel assumptions people form about those living with mental illness, which number approximately 355,000 in the county. Only, the campaign wasn’t always able to overcome stigma. In the early days, few volunteered to have their photos taken, meaning most of the billboard images came from stock images. Cut to three years later, and a bunch of mental-health consumers have stepped forward to be photographed, says county spokeswoman Laura MacCasland. One of those individuals was Seide. Stopped by the side of the road, she looked up at her face and the words beside it: “Mother. Church member. Living with bipolar disorder.” Then she was recognized by a girl who requested a selfie. “To know that people with mental illness look just like your sister, your father, your neighbor, teacher or co-worker—that is huge,” she says. “Who wouldn’t want to support and advocate on behalf of their loved ones?” Here, the mental-health advocate discusses what prompted her to volunteer and what it’s like to be semi-famous.

What made you want to be part of this Stop Stigma campaign?

I live with bipolar disorder. However, after two of my three sons were diagnosed with mental illnesses, I knew I had to do something for them. When the opportunity to participate in the Stop Stigma billboard campaign came along, I jumped on it.

Did you have any reservations about being tied to such a public campaign?

Not at all! By the time I heard about this campaign, I was no longer “in the closet” regarding my own mental illness. My job as a family partner [with the Child Family Institute] requires that I have lived experience with mental illness. Working in the mental health field as someone who shares her own lived experience has been a part of my own healing process.

What was the photo shoot like?

It was fun! We went to Old Sacramento and took many pictures there. I was worried that I'd look like a poodle. It was a windy day and my supercurly hair was all over the place.

What was it like when you first saw it up close?

When I finally was able to check one of them out, I got out of my car and could not believe the size of my face! It was quite a shock to see myself up there and that huge. Once the initial shock was over, I was all smiles.

You were recognized, is that right?

I was taking pictures of the billboard, when a group of people who were gathered by started asking, “Oh my God, is that you? That's you, right?” I was a little bit bashful, and could only nod my head yes.

What happened?

One of the girls from the small crowd walked towards me and asked if I wouldn't mind taking a selfie with her, with the billboard as a background. It felt weird, but fun at the same time, taking my picture with someone I'd never met. … She touched my heart in a positive way. We all need an ego stroke once in a while, right?

Have you had any other “celebrity” encounters?

I've had friends and family call or text me, “Oh my God Xiomara! I swear I saw your face on a billboard.” I also get reactions from fellow church members, co-workers, clients from work and even one of my doctors. My son Alessandro said it's weird to see me so big up there. I tell my sons that I'm literally watching them from up there, so they better not get into any mischief!

Have you run into any other billboard stars?

Yes, I have run into one of them at mental health-related meetings and conferences. We just smile at each other, but haven't formally introduced [ourselves]. I need to make it a point to do so next time I run into her.

What’s been the best part of all this?

The best part is the billboards have become conversation starters regarding mental illness. A few people have asked me about bipolar disorder. I even had someone ask if he could catch it from me. Once we get into the subject of mental illness, I make it a point of telling them that I go to work, shop, participate in my kids' activities, etc. In other words, I lead a normal life as long as I take care of myself.

What do you hope people take away from this campaign?

My No. 1 hope is that we all realize that mental illness is no different than other illnesses. For those who are ready to take the first step to get better (or help their loved ones get better), the billboards might prompt them to Google “Stop Stigma” and from there, obtain the resources needed to seek much needed services. In other words, I hope that for many, they'll be the first step into healing.