Mental wellness warriors: Fighting for those who need it most

Hollywood star Demi Lovato has become an advocate for the mentally ill after coming forward about her own struggles. "Doing better with bipolar disorder takes work, and it doesn't always happen at once."

(CNN)Too often the nation only hears about mental illness when tragedy strikes. But there are warriors for mental wellness in many fields, fighting for better treatment and working to defy stigma. CNN highlights nine fighters, from the famous to the everyman, who are making a difference.

1. Demi Lovato

Actress and singer Demi Lovato stepped into the mental health advocacy role in 2014 by openly discussing her struggles with bipolar disorder.
"I want to show the world that there is life -- surprising, wonderful and unexpected life -- after diagnosis," she says.
    In September, Lovato headlined the National Alliance on Mental Illness' "Call to Action" day, telling the audience she will fight for comprehensive mental health reform. She also launched what she calls the Mental Health Listening and Engagement Tour to meet others struggling with mental health issues.
    "Those of us here today," she told NAMI supporters, "know that mental illness has no prejudice. It affects people of every race, age, gender, religion and economic status. ... We need to send the simple message to our nation's leaders: Mental health matters and must be taken seriously."
    The 22-year-old singer of smash hits "Let It Go" and "Give Your Heart a Break" struggled with depression and feelings of helplessness. "I'd medicate myself with drugs and alcohol in an effort to feel normal -- not better, just normal."
    "I had very low periods that were so emotionally draining that I couldn't find the strength to crawl out of bed."
    Her diagnosis of bipolar disorder was a "relief in so many ways." It helped make sense of the desperation she had felt for years.
    "Even with access to so much," she told the NAMI crowd, "my journey has not been an easy one."
    The former Disney Channel star's recovery was aided by a comprehensive approach: seeing a therapist, getting proper medication, sticking to a treatment plan, being honest with herself and taking better care of her body.
    "Doing better with bipolar disorder takes work, and it doesn't always happen at once."
    Mental health advocates say trying to reach America's youth is one of the toughest things in overcoming stigma, and that Lovato's star power helps bridge that divide. She says she's proud of her recovery and that she got the "help that I need."
    "You can have that, too."

    2. Fred Frese

    Fred Frese stands as the epitome of successful recovery from mental illness. At 25, he was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a Marine Corps officer, and over the next decade he cycled in and out of military, state, county, Veterans and private hospitals.
    Fred Frese was once declared insane. He eventually headed up psychology at Ohio's largest state hospital.
    In the summer of 1968, he was picked up by police because "I was trying to convert people to love, peace and justice." A magistrate in Ohio found him insane and committed him to the state psychiatric hospital. "Twelve years after I was declared to be insane," Frese says, "I was promoted to be the director of psychology at Ohio's largest state hospital."
    Frese travels the nation promoting mental health treatment, giving speeches and serving as a positive example for those with severe mental illness. He says not enough people in recovery speak publicly because the stigma of mental illness is so strong.
    Frese is a bundle of energy, a man who speaks in rapid-fire fashion almost like an auctioneer. He approaches mental illness as both patient and practitioner: his schizophrenia kept in check by medication and proper care. He says the nation's mental health care system is in need of drastic reform. He points to the rise in homelessness, suicide and the difficulty in getting treatment.
    "This is a national disgrace. We have abandoned, ignored and marginalized persons with these disorders, and something has to be done," he says.
    Frese approaches the topic with authority, and with humor. He describes himself as a stand-up schizophrenic. "Particularly proud of being an escaped lunatic," he tells audiences to laughs.
    Even as he struggled with his own mental health, Frese earned master's and doctoral degrees in psychology from Ohio University. He eventually became the director of psychology at Western Reserve Psychiatric Hospital in in Ohio. He held that position for 15 years, until his retirement in 1995.
    He currently is an associate professor of psychiatry at Northeast Ohio Medical University and a clinical assistant professor at Case Western Reserve University. He also has served for 12 years on the board of directors of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, the largest nonprofit advocacy group for the mentally ill.
    His latest goal is to convince mental health professionals to "self-disclose" about their struggles with mental problems.
    "This is an excellent way to fight stigma," he says. "That's a major part of my new mission."

    3. Ted Stanley

    Ted Stanley, a billionaire businessman and philanthropist, gave the largest donation in psychiatric research history in 2014. The $650 million donation to the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is aimed at enhancing scientific research on psychiatric disorders with the hopes of leading to a breakthrough in new treatments.
    Ted Stanley has dedicated his personal wealth to find a cure for mental illness.
    Stanley has been on a quest the last 2½ decades to get to the root cause of mental health disorders. He saw the need for effective treatment after his son, Jonathon, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at age 19.
    His son responded to medication, but he met countless families whose children's conditions never improved with medication.
    "Human genomics has begun to reveal the causes of these disorders. We still have a long way to go, but for the first time we can point to specific genes and biological processes. It's now time to step on the gas pedal," Stanley said in announcing his gift. "I am donating my personal wealth to this goal."
    He said his dedication to this cause -- and solution -- is because he witnessed so many other patients and families have disappointing outcomes. "There was no treatment in sight to end it the way ours had ended with medication solving the problem," Stanley said.
    Coinciding with the donation was the release of a groundbreaking study on schizophrenia by Broad Institute scientists and hundreds of others. The study identified 108 genes linked with schizophrenia and could result in breakthrough treatment in the years ahead.
    "We are finally beginning to gain the deep knowledge about these disorders that we have sought for decades," says Tom Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health.

    4. Sarah Spitz

    Sarah Spitz struggled with suicidal thoughts, first in high school and then again in college. The urges only intensified as the stress of college built up.
    College senior Sarah Spitz has made it her mission to help students struggling with suicidal thoughts.
    A senior at Emory University majoring in psychology, Spitz has turned her fear into action. She encourages students to seek help and uses her own experience as a way to relate to students struggling with the demands of college.
    Spitz is the president of Emory's chapter of Active Minds, a nonprofit group that links students across the nation and inspires them to speak up about mental health issues. She has seen the group grow from a handful of people to a couple dozen.
    "When I first got involved with Active Minds, I felt like a bit of a hypocrite, because I used to be suicidal. I've made multiple suicide attempts," she says. "Then, I was coming at it from the other perspective: trying to prevent suicide by connecting students. It f