In 1995, a talented and much-loved 23 year old Californian named Jon Nadherny committed suicide. Jon was part of a blended family that included eight other siblings. His family contacted the Dominican Hospital Foundation in Santa Cruz and established a unique memorial to honor Jon. With help from the hospital, each year the family holds a one-day symposium at the Santa Cruz boardwalk that focuses on problems that young people face.
Obviously, suicide is an ongoing issue. In Santa Cruz, 190 young people ended their lives during a recent five year period. Nationally, two million young people between the ages of 15 to 24 attempt suicide.
TWO MILLION! Of those, 700,000 require medical attention. More than 4,0000 succeed. Suicide is of special concern to those of us who love someone with a mental disorder because 90 percent of young suicide victims have at least one major psychiatric disorder.
This year’s Jon E. Nadherny symposium in Santa Cruz focused on mental illness and I was invited to speak along with three other advocates. One of my friends and mentors, Frederick J. Frese, PhD., began the morning symposium and kept the sold-out crowd of 450 persons spell-bound for two hours. That’s right, he spoke for two solid hours and was so enthralling that no one left the room and everyone leaped to their feet in a rousing standing ovation when he ended.
The next time you are looking for a DVD to watch, rent Lars and the Real Girl, written by Nancy Oliver, and directed by Craig Gillespie. When it first came out, I had no interest in it because of the brief plot outline. The movie poster showed a man sitting on a coffin-like, wooden container that held a life-size sex doll. The plot outline said the man thought the doll was real.
That wasn’t a premise that interested me.
But then Mike saw it and told me that I should watch it and one night, Patti and I did.
I was blown away.
The first time I went into a prison as a reporter was in the mid- 1970s when I worked at the now closed Tulsa Tribune. The city editor, Windsor Ridenour, assigned me to cover a meeting at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary where the pardon and parole board was convening to decide who would remain behind bars and who would be freed.
I suspect Windsor wanted me to see a rougher side of life from what I had experienced as the son of a minister, but I doubt he had any idea how that visit would ultimately impact my life. I have never forgotten my first trip into the white knuckle hell that is McAlester and that experience is what ultimately caused me to return to prison a decade later and write The Hot House: Life Inside Leavenworth Prison, which recounts a year that I spent off-and-on inside a maximum security penitentiary.
“Why won’t you just take your medication? I take pills for my cholesterol every night and its no big deal?”
“Every psychiatrist we’ve seen has said you have a mental illness. Why won’t you accept it? Why would the doctors tell you that you’re sick, if it weren’t true?”
“Let’s look at when you were doing well and when you got into trouble. What was the difference? Medication. It was the difference. When you were on your meds, you were fine. And when you weren’t, you got into trouble. Can’t you see that?”
These quotes may sound familiar to you if you are a parent and have a a son or daughter with a severe mental illness. I’ve said everyone of them to my son, Mike.
It is much more difficult to walk by a person who is homeless and psychotic if that person is your son, your daughter, a member of your family or someone you know. This is why I encourage people with mental disorders and their loved ones to speak out and tell people that mental illnesses are exactly that – illnesses – which can happen to anyone.
Last week, I appeared on a panel at the National Association of Black Journalists Conference on Health Disparities in Washington D.C. that was sponsored, in part, by Eli Lilly. It was an interesting conference for me because I learned a lot about cultural disparities from Dr. Henrie Treadwell of the Morehouse School of Medicine, and Dr. Annelle B. Primm, Director of Minority and National Affairs at the American Psychiatric Association. Both explained that schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression do not pay attention to skin color. But there is a huge difference in how various ethic groups react to mental illnesses. Many African American males are reluctant to seek help because they are afraid of being perceived as being weak in their communities.