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People Are Awesome: This Woman Uses YouTube To Help Fellow Schizophrenics

Online prankster Rachel Star Withers has a very serious side

Photo courtesy of Rachel Star Withers

We’ve relaunched a GOOD online series, “People Are Awesome,” where we feature good people doing great things—and seek their advice, inspiration, and ideas. This week’s Awesome Person: Rachel Star Withers.

Rachel Star Withers has two markedly distinct personalities on YouTube. One is heavy on pranks and stunts; the first of these vids was called Bikini Paintball and, well, Withers ran around in a bikini getting hit by paintballs.

Her other videos are quite the contrast—serious, sometimes stark depictions of her experiences with schizophrenia. “It shows people kind of what’s going on behind the scenes,” she says.

Withers has posted dozens of these revealing glimpses into her mental health, dating back to 2008 when she was 22. They bear titles like My Scariest Hallucinations and Normal: Living With Schizophrenia. "I'm making this because I don't want you to feel alone, whether you're struggling with any kind of mental illness or just struggling," she tells the camera in the latter vid.

Withers made her first schizophrenia-related video when she was about to start electroconvulsive therapy; people warned that she might suffer memory loss and that she should “write it all down.” She followed their advice, essentially, just in her preferred medium. Thus was born an oft-updated video titled Watch if You Forget, walking the viewer (and herself) through the potentially scary phases of her shock therapy. She says college psych professors have used this video as part of their curriculums.

Withers’ videos have impacted people on a scale far larger than she ever envisioned; she receives frequent communications from viewers young and old, many of them enduring their own mental health struggles. Many messages come from teenagers who are starting to hallucinate and don’t know where to turn.

“I tell them they really need to be talking to their parents or a professional,” Withers says, “but I also let them know that this will get less scary over time. That can be hard to hear when you’re only 16, but it helps.”

We called Withers at her home in the Charlotte, North Carolina, area, soon before her 31st birthday, to ask her a handful of curious questions.

Who is your hero?

My dad is definitely one of my top heroes. I’ve been watching him through the years; he can deal with anything. He’s the type of guy to just accept things as they are. Like, my grandparents had bad alzheimer's, and he just...took care of them. He did the worst things, you know, like scrubbing crap out of the carpet. But he was their son, and that’s just what you do, you take care of them. Noble would be a good word. It’s what I strive to be.

What is the best advice you’ve received?

I read a quote in an intro to psych class: “We are who we become.” I really like that, it gives hope for the future, tells you not to be so hard on yourself. When I am frustrated or hurt by someone, that thought makes it easier to not judge them as harshly. They're on their own journey, you know?

How about the worst advice?

Growing up in the South, in a very religious community, I got told many times I was possessed by demons. People were so quick to give their two cents, that I was having hallucinations because I wasn’t right with God, that I needed to be more spiritual. They even tried to exorcise me! Obviously it didn’t help; I am schizophrenic, not possessed.

What is the last thing that made you laugh really hard?

Let’s see, what is something appropriate I can tell? Ah well I am getting laser hair removal right now, and my friend is doing the opposite—she’s getting eyelash extensions. Our favorite joke is that they were lasering out my underarms and gluing my hair on my friend’s eyes. It’s okay, you can tell me: ‘Rachel that's dumb.’

If you could be anywhere in the world right now, where would it be?

I’ve been talking about this for like 10 years—I really want to backpack through China. These things get harder and harder as you get older, finding time to take a month off work. But I’ve been slowly squirreling away money; I’m getting closer and closer.

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