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An Honest Conversation about Mental Illness

City Club of Portland presents Friday Forum: RAW – An Honest Conversation about Mental Illness with Sheila Hamilton, Storm Large, and Dr. Chris Farentinos.

Join Sheila Hamilton (pictured), News Director and Co-host of the morning news program at KINK-FM who recently authored a book, All the Things We Never Knew, and Storm Large, singer and author of the book, Crazy Enough, as they discuss the trauma of a family member’s mental illness with Dr. Chris Farentinos, Director of Behavioral Health at Legacy Health and spokesperson for the Unity Center for Behavioral Health – a forthcoming collaboration of Legacy, Adventist, OHSU and Kaiser. Join us as we dive in, look up and look ahead … envisioning a place where people suffering from mental illness, and their families, are treated as compassionately, holistically and empathetically as people suffering from heart disease, a broken bone or cancer. How can we get there?

Storm Large’s one woman show and award winning memoir, Crazy Enough echoes the familiar sadness and survival in Sheila Hamilton’s brilliant new release. The topic of mental illness is finally being discussed more openly, connecting a huge, lonely part of our society with other survivors, as well as people and organizations who can further help them.

Dr. Chris Farentinos
After serving as Chief Operating Officer for De Paul Treatment Centers, Dr. Chris Farentinos became Director for Behavioral Health Services for Legacy Health, a not-for-profit health system with six hospitals and more than 50 clinics in Portland and Southwest WA. Dr. Farentinos is a leading advocate behind Unity Center for Behavioral Health, a collaboration between Legacy, Adventist, OHSU and Kaiser to consolidate current psychiatric units and to create a 24/7 psychiatric emergency service located in Portland. Unity is set to open in late 2016

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

‘What Should We Have Known?’

A conversation with FOX News Health host, Dr. Manny Alvarez.

Mental illness, unlike breast cancer, isn’t celebrated with big marches or pink ribbons. The stigma is stifling and it prevents most people from seeking help. David, my husband, refused to accept the label of bipolar disorder. He could not imagine a life of medications and therapy, which did so little to help. David’s path is not unique. Suicide is now the ninth most common cause of death for men and women in America. Every thirteen minutes, another American dies from suicide.

What could we have done differently?

What should we have known?

It is my belief that many people could benefit from hearing more about how psychiatric conditions unfold. In the years, months and days leading up to David’s death, I didn’t classify him as mentally ill. I missed many signs. I ignored others, believing it could get better. And I scrambled, as the world came crashing down around us, I scrambled to maintain my own sanity and the health of our daughter.

Our daughter celebrates her birthday each June. I can’t help but measure her birthdays with an equal sense of apprehension and elation. She’s a teenager now, and still no sign of the brooding, the polarity, the darkness that descended on David like Portland’s thick gray clouds in January, refusing to budge. Yes, she has his intellect but she also has my relatively sunny nature. She is physically stunning with long, muscular legs and a waist that defies her voracious appetite. She has David’s European cheekbones. The color of her skin is his. Her ears have the same shape. There are times I find myself staring at one of her features for too long. She bats me away, “Mom, enough.”

After David’s death, I’d read every book I could get my hands on about bipolar disorder. I’d measured the likelihood of a genetic inheritance against the things I could influence– her diet, her sleep, exercise, a sense of well-being and unconditional love. She is just fine, so far. Becoming aware of our family’s genetic vulnerabilities was painful, but it provided a unique gateway to also focus on our genetic strengths, and Sophie has inherited a majority of the good stuff. She’s attending college now with the sensitivity, compassion and intellect of a person who will be better than “just fine.”

I want everyone to know about the signs and symptoms that I missed with David. The anxiety, confusion, disorganization, trouble completing tasks and how withdrawn he became. My interest is in preventing another loss of life as exquisite as David’s. I welcome your emails, your stories, and hopefully, your support. Connect with me and sign up for my newsletter. I’d be so grateful if you did.

A new stage of grief: forgiveness

SunsetDr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross has described the five stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. When a loved one commits suicide, that list is incomplete. We are haunted by the questions, “Why would he?” or “What could I have done differently?”

I’d propose one more stage of grief to Kubler-Ross’s list in the case of suicide: forgiveness. It was not until I reached this stage of forgiveness that I was able to sort out my own failings from those of my husband. In accepting responsibility for my part in David’s death, I was able to understand his sense of futility and his unwillingness to face his illness. I forgave him. And in doing so, I was finally able to understand his decision.

In all of the research I’ve done to attempt to understand David’s decision, one particularly well written piece by Jay Neugeboren sticks with me. Jay’s brother, Robert, had been in the New York mental health system for nearly forty years, and had been given nearly every antipsychotic medication known to humankind. Jay began interviewing hundreds of former patients who had been institutionalized, often for periods of ten or more years, and who had recovered into full lives: doctors, lawyers, teachers, custodians and social workers. He was fascinated with the question–what had made the difference?

Some pointed to new medications, some to old. Some said they had found God. No matter what else they named, they all said that a key element was a relationship with a human being. Most of the time, this human being was a professional, a social worker or nurse, who said, in effect, “I believe in your ability to recover, and I am going to stay with you until you do.” The author points out that his brother had recently recovered from his mental illness, without a recurrence for more than six years, the longest stretch in his adult life.

Given the lack of hope or optimism during David’s hospitalization, this study affects me deeply. But it also provides a blueprint for those of us who want to commit our lives to connecting deeply with others, especially those who may be suffering. We need one another to lead healthy lives, and when faced with the prospect of illness, be it mental or physical, we need to believe others can help us through to the other side. We need to believe that it is no different to ask for help with a brain illness than it would be for a cancer patient to ask for chemotherapy. We need to have faith in our own ability to endure, and when hope wanes, as it will with the illogical ups and downs of any disease, we should track our way back to our hearts.

Sheila Hamilton is the author of All the Things We Never Knew, available for pre-order on Amazon.com. For more information on Sheila’s story, please read prior blog posts, or contact the author below. Thanks!

 

Unreachable

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My father’s parents both died before he turned ten years old. He essentially grew up as an orphan, and yet he was the happiest person I’ve ever known. At the age of seventy-nine, he simply refused to believe that the cancer eating away at his jaw would ever claim him. “A bump in the road” was the way he softly described the recurrence of his illness to me on the phone.

Five days before his death, he got out of his hospice bed, wobbling as he put on his pants, and announced that he needed to “go back to work.” I still believe he went to his death pissed off that he didn’t get one more day.

My former husband was raised by two of the most brilliant and charismatic parents I’ve ever known. They were movie-star gorgeous and equipped with languages and experiences I could only imagine. David traveled the world, ran a successful building company, and earned the most profound love of his life, our daughter. He skied, hunted, and fished. And he killed himself at the age of fifty-three.

What makes one person fight for every breath and another take his own life? Brain illness. There are a lot of theories about why people experience brain illnesses. In my time searching for answers, I’ve heard neurologists discuss disruptions in the brain while naturopaths point to an inflammation of the gut. I’ve seen behavioral therapists declare it is the result of a lack of meaningful relationships and a flawed, negative thought process. Psychiatrists talk about past traumas and a problem with chemical regulation.

I’m not a doctor, and I don’t pretend to know which of the disciplines will eventually be proven right, but I have a hunch. They are all right. As human beings, we are holistic beings. The interconnectivity of our genetics, our diet, our sleep patterns, and our past traumas create a delicate and sometimes disastrous dance. Everything I’ve read suggests resilience comes from a healthy lifestyle, meaningful relationships, experiences like yoga and mindfulness that draw you inward, and a dedicated perspective that allows you to believe things will get better.

My father’s body was racked with disease when he joked with me about who should control the remote. “From now on, I watch what I want,” he laughed. “I have cancer. You have to be nice to me.” When his oncologist flatly told him there had been a mistake on the tests and he’d better start putting his affairs in order, it was as if my father suddenly developed hearing loss. He refused to believe anyone was going to end his party.

David pulled away from us in the early stages of his brain illness and refused to share concerns about his lethargy, irritability, and confusion. He was, after all, a dignified man who rarely asked for help. When he was finally diagnosed with Bipolar II, it was as if his family, his work, and any semblance of a life that might have sustained him through his illness no longer mattered. He simply couldn’t bear the darkness that descended on his brain.

What mechanism allows one person to fight for every breath, even as their body is racked with a biological illness, and the other to end their life before they even get gray hair? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

“Look to the living, love them and hold on.” Douglas Dunn