Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Running Down Stigma: Michael's Story

In 2008 Michael Runningwolf was diagnosed with a severe mental illness known as Paranoid Schizophrenia. Although this illness has made life difficult for Michael, he says the most crippling of all things was the stigma attached to his illness. Michael now runs races to help erase the stigma of mental illness and raises funds for mental health organizations. Michael will be running the Santa Barbara International Marathon on November 9, 2013 in support of NAMI Utah. Check out his website by clicking HERE.

We had the opportunity to ask Michael a few questions. Here's what he had to say:

1.) Where did you seek help when you first received a diagnosis? 

When I first received my diagnosis, I was told that I needed to go to a psychiatric hospital so I could get the proper care I needed. I was not educated about mental illness at that time and I had no idea where to reach out for help. At the same time, most of the people in my life were distancing themselves from me and I felt very alone and scared. I found a local NAMI office in Boise Idaho and they helped me with information but I was struggling and it wasn’t long before I found myself hospitalized again and then I found myself incarcerated into the jails psychiatric unit.

2.) Tell us about your first involvement with NAMI.

The first time I found NAMI was in Idaho, but the first time I really found NAMI was when I moved to Phoenix Arizona. I went to visit them and found a home, they let me volunteer there and I found a family that supported me any way they could. I started to volunteer about two hours a week, and before I knew it I was volunteering forty hours a week before and more because I believed in what NAMI was doing and also it felt wonderful to get up every morning and have someplace to go and to know I was helping others. They saved my life, they helped me find my purpose and meaning and they did it without ever asking who my insurance provider was or what could I pay. They were my saving grace and I owe NAMI everything for what they did for me. They helped me learn about my illness, they put me in the NAMI classes, they believed in me, and they taught me that I was not alone. Without NAMI, I am not sure I would have survived it all.

3.) How has running helped you in your recovery?

It has given me a purpose, I run to break down the barriers of mental illness. When you run a 26.2 mile race and you complete with the other runners, you show that people with a diagnosis can go the distance too. Also, I hear things that others don’t and see things that others don’t and when I run, I think it releases serotonin and that gives the illness a real beating! I like to say I can drop my voices at mile five because they can’t keep up. It is my best medicine to fight them; it is my best coping skill. When I run I am free, I know I can use it to help with the symptoms and the weight gain that comes from taking psychiatric medications. In addition, running has been tool for me in breaking down stigma because I can take it to the general population and get it out to the communities, to the people who rarely ever think of mental illness except when it makes headlines because of an incident. It is my way to speak to the world, that we are people too, and we too can go the extra mile.

 4.) What were some important resources for you during your journey with mental illness? 

NAMI classes, NAMI library, and the folks at NAMI with their vast amount of knowledge and caring. They helped me navigate a system that is not easy to navigate; they helped me understand the steps to take to get what I needed. A Another important resource was my psychiatrist who actually listened to me and supported me in my healing. I am also on SMI (serious mentally ill) probation and my probation officer Doug is a huge support for me and makes it possible for me to travel and run.

5.) Do you have any advice for others seeking treatment? 

Yes, contact your local NAMI, contact them and work with them, they can be your greatest source of information and understanding. Enroll in the NAMI classes and meet other peers that struggle with psychiatric challenges. Always hope, never give up, and when you find what works for you, never stop doing what works. And share and support others when you can, giving back is empowering and when you feel empowered you have the energy and motivation to keep going strong!


  1. What a powerful story! I am touched and impressed at your strength and determination, Michael. I love what you said about "losing the voices at mile five". Amazing stuff. I find that when I am physically active, my mind is also much clearer. I agree that the serotonin boost is therapeutic!

  2. We are in the middle of yet another hospitalization for my adult son, again finding ourselves feeling alone, devastated, powerless and desperate for answers. Your story is the brightest thing I've happened on in a long time! Thanks, after reading about your journey I feel recharged to help my son and family keep marching forward.