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My name is Tony and I’m living well with Depression.

If more people shared their stories of illness and eventual recovery, it would have a profound effect on those who are suffering in silence. I recently posted a request on the Huffington post asking for stories of recovery.

I heard from a psychologist who refused to recognize his own depression, even as he treated other people in crisis. I heard from a CEO who was so ashamed of his anxiety disorder that he suffered a panic attack in a high level board meeting. I heard from a teacher who was substituting for a health class before she realized she might have post traumatic stress syndrome. I’ve received so many letters and heard so many stories of people’s initial reluctance to recognize their illness and seek treatment. And yet, the reason I am now hearing from these courageous people is because they all eventually found a path to recovery.

It’s not easy. Recovery takes patience, commitment, strong support from family and friends, and the willingness to be brutally honest with oneself. It takes wading through therapies to find the one that clicks with your way of life. Some therapists are extremely gifted. Others are horrible. (I’d love to see an “Angie’s list” of therapists, psychiatrists, psychologists and care centers, complete with reviews and feedback from users.) It’s important to note: In every case of recovery, there is one person who believes in the person so wholeheartedly, they provide enormous support. Most times, it is a therapist or a doctor who provides the unflinching support. Other times, it is a spiritual advisor, a yoga teacher, a friend or a partner.

Tony is one such example.He stopped me in the hallway at work after we worked together on a mental health campaign. “I thought it was hypocritical not to tell you I’m living well with a mental illness.” he said. My heart immediately opened to Tony and his story. He works every day to keep his illness in check. It took many years to figure out the right combination of anti-depressants, therapies, exercise and mindfulness. As Tony notes, these therapies, drugs and coping mechanisms may not always work. He still struggles to keep his negative thoughts in check, but he works his program every single day. “For many years, I wished someone could wave away my illness,” Tony says. “Now, I realize it’s made me the sensitive and compassionate person I’ve become.”

Tony is brave beyond measure. I’m thrilled to bring you his story. And, I’d love to hear yours.

The Silicon Valley Suicides: A survivor’s response

The December issue of The Atlantic just went online a few days ago, and it’s already landed in my inbox a half a dozen times. The senders know me as a mental health advocate, a radio host and the author of a new book called ‘All the Things We Never Knew, Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness.’

The title of the article, ‘The Silicon Valley Suicides,’ strikes me both professionally and personally.
http://http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/12/the-silicon-valley-suicides/413140/

My daughter and I are suicide survivors. She is also a freshman at Stanford University.

Yes, I’m concerned. I’m also hopeful.

The Atlantic article talks about an issue widely discussed in Silicon Valley circles, but not so much in the public at large,–why are some of the world’s brightest students committing suicide? Palo Alto has had two high school suicide clusters since 2009, and the rate of anxiety and depression among high-achieving students is alarmingly high.

Palo Alto is not a community that ignores a problem as serious as teen suicide. In fact, community response has been swift; the CDC is helping assess local suicide risk factors, national and local experts advise on the science of suicidality, and the community has refined youth well-being programs. After criticism from students about the pressure to succeed, local high schools have reduced academic and performance pressure and convened “Project Safety Net, coordinating the work of public and private organizations focused on teen wellbeing.

I applaud every effort. And, I’d add this. I don’t believe we’ll “engineer” our way out of this problem without first acknowledging that suicide is a crisis of mind, body, and spirit. If I’ve learned anything in the ten years since my husband died by suicide, it is this: Suicide is the best and the last choice of the sufferer, and any attempt by survivors to answer “why” is frustrating and incomplete.

My husband told his doctors he compensated for his depressions for twenty-five years. Before his first episode of mania, he never spoke of having a mental health problem because his family viewed it as a weakness of self. As I read the profiles of the Palo Alto teens who have died by suicide, I recognize similar traits: high intellect, extreme sensitivity, a feeling of isolation and loneliness. And impulsivity. David never seemed to develop an eye to his divinity, or what some may call self-love. He suffered from a great deal of self-loathing, and the ultimate diagnosis of a mental illness was a radical personal affront to his view of himself. Science, engineering, and technology all focus on the realm of the knowable. I often wonder if David might be alive if he’d been willing to spend more time pondering the unknowable, the mystics, or the divine.

In a decade of research and writing on mental health, I’ve never found someone bold enough to say, “Here’s why people die by suicide.” Each new circumstance challenges the last. But this much seems reasonable: in our development of self, anyone whose identity is undermined by radical personal or cultural change is at risk to suicide. Adolescents and young adults, now living at hyper speed and undergoing radical change, seem to be at higher risk than ever. The very students we thought were destined to be our best and brightest are calling out for help. A big part of their lives, or at least the part that allows us to feel a connection to one another, has gone missing.

We must embrace our humanness and the parts of us that may not be viewed “successful” by an outside world. Fellow writer and Portlander Cheryl Strayed described it as developing the qualities people talk about at your funeral, not the achievements listed on your Linked In profile. We must teach our kids that the qualities of vulnerability, empathy, resilience and compassion are far more important to health and happiness than their SAT score. Mindfulness training is one way to get there. So is prayer. And learning from failure.

If we’re talking about how to solve a serious problem, we may want to develop the app for sitting still, for breathing, and for allowing a spiritual connection to take root. There isn’t an award or accolades given for seeking, but it may hold the biggest reward of all. I’m coming to Palo Alto December 4th to talk about mindfulness and mental health. I welcome your comments and suggestions. www.SheilaHamilton.com

Happiness is a garden. Tend to it.

Eric Hutchinson gladly lent his support to the #KeepOregonWell campaign. The singer-songwriter talked openly about battling depression and why he thinks everyone should consider talking with a therapist about the challenges they face.

Eric was in town with Kelly Clarkson at the Moda Center.

David Gray on self-care and mental health awareness`

If a young musician asked me whose career to emulate, I’d have no hesitation in answering David Gray. Gray has managed to achieve both commercial and critical success while maintaining an artistic vision. He’s had multiple albums and then none at all for years while he regroups to find his muse. He’s been very poor and very rich, without gaining an attachment to either economic category. He’s been a multi-platinum success and still has more energy and passion on stage than most twenty-year -old performers.

Gray is interested in two things, heart, and art, and when you get him talking about those topics he is a non-stop churn of rapid fire ideas and opinions. Yet, Gray describes himself as a pensive kid, puzzling over questions, ruminating over his life and often caught in his earliest pictures with his hand to his chin, his eyebrows furled, thinking, worrying, and puzzling.

Thank God Gray found art as a way to express himself. He experienced enormous success with his fourth album, White Ladder, in the early 2000’s and moved from near obscurity in the United States to owning one of the best selling songs of the decade, Babylon. Gray says it was a big thing to live through, going from obscurity to ubiquity, and he sees the richness of that success, but also the restrictions of fame.

It has been four years since Gray’s last album, Foundling, and he’s found a new partner, Andy Barlow of trip hop duo Lamb, to help him out of his comfort zone and into a newly expansive creative period.
In the end, it was the joy of hearing his finished sound on Mutineers along with a discovered method for writing and arranging, that helped conquer his demons of doubt.

Here, in this incredible interview with Sheila Hamilton of Kink and Logan Lynn of Trillium Family Services, David Gray talks about how he uses music to keep his finely tuned equilibrium in working order, and why it is so important for artists to pay attention to our bearings. “Artists. We’re all a bit mental,” says Gray, laughing. “And all of us suffer. It’s how we cope that matters.”

Thanks to @TrilliumFamilyServices for sponsoring this @SkypeLounge interview with David Gray and for its #KeepOregonWell campaign, encouraging you to find out more about fighting stigma at www.KeepOregonWell.com

Demand Hope. Demand Recovery. Nothing less than life will do.

I hosted a public celebration at Pioneer Courthouse Square to mark the end of a hugely successful fundraising campaign for the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute. The Phil and Penny Knight Foundation challenged Oregonians to raise $500 million dollars to fight cancer. Make that goal in two years, Knight said, and his foundation would match the giving. OHSU raised the money in a record sixteen months, with 85% of the giving coming from within Oregon. We made it. It was a moving and emotional experience to learn of the remarkable breakthroughs in saving the lives of people diagnosed with cancer, and to imagine the gains that will accrue after a one billion dollar investment in cancer detection and prevention.

In nearly every area of public health, startling improvements are being made. If research on cancer, heart disease, stroke and diabetes has proven anything, it is that research investments save lives. As Dr. Brian Druker pointed out, research dollars devoted to leukemia allowed him to create a lifesaving drug, Gleevec, which has revolutionized the quest for a cancer cure and saved countless lives.

Sheila Hamilton, Mark Ganz, Ceo of Cambia Health Solutions, Oregon Governor Kate Brown

Sheila Hamilton, Mark Ganz, Ceo of Cambia Health Solutions, Oregon Governor Kate Brown

Now, let’s look at the tenth leading cause of death. Suicide. In 2014, 41,000 people died by suicide, and yet, public and private investments in research are meager, according to the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Research Efforts 2008-2013 Portfolio Analysis. Unlike other causes of death, the suicide rate has shown no decline over the last fifty years. Overall, Americans are now more likely to die by suicide than in an automobile accident. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens ages 15-34. And the rate of suicide among middle-aged Americans has increased by 30% since 1999.

What is most perplexing is the accepted rate of failure. Many people who die by suicide are under the care of physicians. In the month before their death by suicide, about half saw a general practitioner. According to the National Alliance for Suicide Prevention, thirty percent of those who die by suicide saw a mental health professional. Health care professionals often fail to ask about suicide risk because they were never trained to or they don’t know how to recognize suicide warning signs.

If we could improve suicide identification and care in primary settings, or in emergency departments, where most people go when they are feeling suicidal, we would have the potential to save lives. If we adopted the expectation of recovery in care settings, we could save lives. If we invested in the prevention of suicide like we invest in the prevention of heart disease and cancer, we could save lives. We know this because we are watching the rate of suicide decline in other countries that have made suicide prevention a priority.

41,000 lives a year are in the balance.

The dedicated folks at OHSU have a great saying. “We fight cancer differently. We win.”
Imagine a similar phrase for the prevention of suicide. “Demand Hope. Demand Recovery. Nothing less than life will do.”

Dr. Xavier Amador, “I Am Not Sick, I Don’t Need Help!”

Among the greatest frustrations in caring for a person with mental illness is Anosognosia, or lack of awareness. Dr. Xavier Amador talks with me about how to get the help your loved one needs. Amador is the director of the LEAP Institute, an internationally renowned leader in his field, with numerous books, authoritative research, worldwide speaking tours and extensive work in mental illness.

Dave Dahl of Dave’s Killer Bread on mental illness

Dave DahlI have always admired the redemptive story of Dave Dahl, a former convict who turned his life around by making the killer recipe called “Blues Bread,” that revolutionized the bread industry. Dahl became the face of Dave’s Killer Bread, and helped turn a family baking industry into a multi-million dollar brand. Dave’s Killer Bread is the nation’s favorite organic sliced bread.

In November of 2013, Dahl’s fate turned during a widely publicized incident with Washington County police. Many people reported he was drunk or high. In fact, Dahl was experiencing his first psychotic episode, a terrifying experience he recounts in this interview.

Some Words of Encouragement

All the Things We Never Knew

I chose to write about mental illness in All the Things We Never Knew for one reason–to give people hope. It was excruciating to watch my former husband descend into mental illness and not know where to turn or who to ask for help.

The unexpected gift of writing on this topic is that people now share their most closely held stories with me; they are vulnerable and open, recounting life experiences that aren’t generally water cooler talk.

After hearing about my book, the big burly guy who sat next to me on an airplane told me in detail about his brother, an Iraq war veteran, who suffers from PTSD so severely he sweats through his sheets every night. “He served three tours,” the man said, “and he’s still at war.”

A hairdresser told me about her battle with postpartum depression, and how, after months of seizures she believed were caused by anti-depressants, she attempted to take her life. If her baby hadn’t crawled in the bedroom as she was downing a bottle of pills, she says, she wouldn’t have found her way to recovery.

An older gentleman listened quietly to my brief description of the book and then whispered, “You young people are so brave. I’ve never told anyone about my depression.” I smiled and said, “I’ve never told anyone else I’m not young.” We shared a good laugh.

One in five Americans suffers from a mental health disorder. But, those numbers don’t hint at the tens of thousands of people who suffer in silence. Darkness wins, shame wins, and people feel more alone, and unworthy of love.

Brene Brown defines vulnerability as “Emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty.” It fuels our daily lives. As a therapist in her 12th year doing research, Brown says, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage; to be vulnerable, to let ourselves be seen, to be honest.” What stops many from showing vulnerability is shame. Shame, according to Brown, is not guilt. It is a focus on self. Shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, and eating disorders.

So, here’s my message: If you are one of those people shaming yourself, denying yourself love, hiding from your emotions, know this. You are not alone. There are so many people who want to hear your story and they want to help. People who care are waiting to hear from you at Lines for Life, NAMI, Trillium Family Services, and your local County Mental Health services. These people will fight for you, with kindness and compassion. Be vulnerable, be open, and do not give up. Demand hope. Demand recovery. You are worth it.

INVISIBLE

18982376-distress-and-suffering-with-a-human-eye-crying-a-single-tear-drop-with-a-screaming-facial-expression

My friend’s eight-year-old son punched a hole through the sheetrock of his new classroom two months ago. His parents had moved him from the elementary school he’d attended since kindergarten because he was eating his lunch alone or not eating at all. He refused to go on the family’s spring vacation and requested a home office instead so that he “could get his life organized.”

None of the behavior rang alarm bells–the son had always been extremely quiet and unusually bright. But, when the small fist of the shy kid went through the sheetrock, people started looking for answers. Inside the boy’s black journal, there were stick figures of ambulance workers loading a child into the back of a car. “I need to go to the hospital,” he told his mom.

My friend says she feels as if she can’t breathe correctly. It started when her son sat in the car outside school that day and told his mom he’d been coming up with ways to kill himself.

“I have several ideas,” he said, staring into his hands.

“Thank you for telling me,” she whispered back.

“I don’t want to die,” he said. “But, I can’t stop thinking about it.”

She tried to be calm on the drive to the emergency room. She was told there were ten children ahead of her son, all waiting for a psychiatric bed to open.  The administrator said the boy could be there all weekend and not be treated for his mental health condition.

“Can you imagine breaking your leg and being told you’ll need to wait a week to get care?” she asked. They sent the family home with a bottle of anti-depressants, but without a referral to a psychiatrist.

His tongue swells. His stomach churns. He wakes up in cold sweats at night, drenching the sheet. There is no one to call to see whether the side effects are normal or worrisome. Someone in the family must sleep with the boy at all times. Someone is always on duty; to follow him to the bathroom and wait while he showers.

They eat meals with plastic utensils.

There is only one thing I offer that seems to help: “The majority of young people experiencing their first psychotic episode will make a complete recovery.”* It’s a reference point my friend desperately needs to have repeated.

The trajectory of recovery is variable. It takes weeks to know if a certain drug is the right drug, or whether it is even working. There is the risk that anti-depressants may make some children more suicidal. Some people get better quite suddenly. Others relapse, and then gradually get better.

Accessing the mental health patchwork of services is  like running a corn maze blindfolded. There’s always another obstacle. You wish someone who was in charge could give you a map.  Her days and nights stretch into one another. For the first time in months, she heard her son playing his guitar and she cried. But there is silence from the outside world.

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*The National Institute of Mental Health reports that “unlike most disabling physical diseases, mental illness begins very early in life. Half of all lifetime cases begin by age 14; three-quarters have begun by age 24. Thus, mental disorders are the chronic diseases of the young. For example, anxiety disorders often begin in late childhood, mood disorders in late adolescence, and substance abuse in the early twenties.”

*A combination of funding cutbacks,  cuts in the Oregon Health Plan, rising health care costs and a decrease in the number of psychiatrists have all contributed to what has become a crisis-level shortage of beds for mental health patients in metropolitan Portland.