Friday, January 15, 2016

I Am Not Ashamed of My Mental Illness

I spoke so much about being a manic-depressive. I want to bring everyone back to my earliest memories of this companion of mine. Some people call this companion I have an ailment, or worse a terrible nightmare from which some people cannot awaken. I know that I have nothing to be ashamed of. I have nothing that should garner a stigma.~ Richard Dreyfuss, Academy Award Winning Actor

Earlier today, my Twitter friend Linda Diaz of Lauryn's Law tagged me in a post for an article from Washington Post about  Rachel Griffin.  Rachel is a singer/songwriter in New York, as well as a grad student at NYU.  Most importantly, Rachel suffers from Mental Illness. Rachel recently put out the call on Twitter with the hashtag #iamnotashamed in order for people to openly disclose their mental illness.  The comments and Tweets have been overwhelmingly positive.

Now for many when they read the previous paragraph, they may have thought, "How can she do anything if she has mental illness?" or "Why would she admit to this?" The answer is easy.  Because by creating awareness, she is creating understanding.

The problem is the stigma and stereotype that exists in the world about mental illness. Far too many tend to see the stereotype rather than the reality. They picture people with mental illness as extras from One Few Over the Cuckoo's Nest, walking around institutions in bathrobes, drooling on themselves; or as maniacal characters such as the Joker from The Dark Knight; or the depressed, black clad Emo such  The Cure's Robert Smith .  Sufferers of mental illness are all of the above and none of the above.

Yes, there are the tragedies of such famous people who dealt with mental illness such as Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, and Heath Ledger.  All were brilliantly creative people that battled their demons, but in the end, lost.  These are the stories that we are all familiar with because of the tragic end.  But there are people who have triumphed as well.  Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, John Nash of A Beautiful Mind fame, Charles Dickens, former Today host Jane Pauley, 60 Minutes reporter Mike Wallace, NFL Hall of Famer Charles Haley, Princess Diana,  and Star Wars star Carrie Fisher.  That is not to say their lives were not without incident, but they were able to persevere.

I admire these people as well as feel their pain.  See, I too suffer from clinical depression, and have for many years.  When I was young, I knew there was something different about me.  I would go through long spells where I felt off, knowing that something was wrong, but not knowing what.  I would sit in class and think that I was the only one that felt that way.  As I got older, I would begin to feel desperate, to fear the future, to worry about little things, to blow things out of proportion, to lose sleep over things I had no control of, to feel lonely and sad, and to feel so down, it seemed that there was no way up.  I took comfort in beer, and would drink enough to help me calm down and sleep.  I would often drink to excess with my friends on weekends.  I thought it was part of having a good time, of being in my 20's and fitting in,  I was smart enough to know alcohol was a depressant, but I didn't care. Looking back I realize it was because I felt so low that I would use it as an excuse to numb myself to the perceived reality around me.

Finally in my 30's, as my first marriage was falling apart, in large part due to self destructive behavior, I finally reached out for help.  I spoke to my doctor and was prescribed Zoloft.  After a while, it began to work.  The feelings of despair began to dissipate, and the anxiety that had helped provoke my fears was lessened.  For the first time in years, I felt somewhat normal, and began to work on putting my marriage back together.  Unfortunately, I made the mistake that many do, declared myself cured and stopped taking the medication.  Things quickly fell apart again, and because of that, so did my marriage.  I was soon divorced, living in a small apartment and seeing my son Peyton every other weekend.  I went back to not only beer, but vodka as well.  I would come home and mix a strong drink to help me calm my nerves and relax, blot out my feelings and get me to sleep.

I never considered myself an alcoholic, I never turned to the "hair of the dog" in the morning, never missed work or even drank at work, but I could see myself becoming overly dependent on it.  My lowest point came after a minor outpatient procedure.  The procedure was on a Friday morning, and I spent the afternoon and evening in an anesthesia induced haze.  The next morning, as the last of the anesthesia wore off, and my mind raced, I felt the most incredible psychological pain imaginable.  I wept, cried and at my lowest thought about how easy it would be to stop the pain by taking all of the Ambien in my medicine cabinet.  Then I thought about my son, my recently widowed father, and other family members, and knew I couldn't.  I made an appointment that Monday and renewed my prescription for Zoloft.  This time, it didn't work like before, and my doctor changed me to Cymbalta which did the job.  I knew this time that depression was not temporary, but my permanent companion.  Once I had my mind back in order, I got my life in order.  I soon met the love of my life, Lisa, who became my wife.  We had a beautiful daughter, Emmalee, bought a new house, and all seemed well.  I was living the American Dream.

That all came crashing down on October 8, 2014.  I received the call that Peyton, just 13, had hung himself, and he passed away five days later on the 13th.  This threatened to plunge me into a darkness from which there would be no return, but this time I was ready.  I had my meds adjusted, got into counseling and support, and made a conscious about not letting myself find comfort or escape in anything, be it food or alcohol, and except for a slip on the first New Year's Eve without Peyton, I have done well, and continue to do so.

Now here I am talking openly about my mental illness and encouraging others to do the same.  Every day is a challenge.  The fog has lifted from Peyton's death, and I never know what will trigger the tears, sadness, or anxiety.  I take my medication, talk openly about my struggles and try to help others.  I keep hoping that one day, the stigma of mental illness will be lifted, and the people suffering will be treated with the same dignity and respect that other illnesses receive.  Until then, I will continue to talk and proudly proclaim "I am not ashamed of my mental illness!"

Author's Note:  the first time I posted on Twitter, I received a tweet from some one under the handle of @jailina_ telling me that because medical science hadn't conclusively proven mental illness, then there really wasn't anything wrong with me, and that it was all in my head.  If you deal with mental illness, and some one tells you this, ignore them.  Studies of the human brain are still going on, yet the human mind is still a mystery.  Stay strong, ignore the naysayers and tell them #Iamnotashamed.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Suicide Is Not Funny

Earlier this week, I saw a post on Twitter about Maggie Harder,  a young lady from Canada that was upset by suicide themed t-shirts that are being sold on Amazon (in their humor section).  The various shirts have sayings such as "Got Suicide?" or "Suicide Watch" which also has an image of one person on a chair with a noose around their neck while another person sits, watches, and eats popcorn.

First of all, I applaud Maggie for seeing a problem and taking a stand  Not only are these shirts insensitive to those who have lost loved ones to suicide, but they also poke fun at one of the most crippling diseases in society, mental illness.  as a person that has struggled with depression for years, and lost my son to suicide, I really don't see the humor, or any kind of rational logic, in these shirts.

The shirts boast such sayings as "Suicide makes our lives so much easier" and "Stressed, depressed but well dressed."  Really?  My life has been a living hell since the death of my son.  Every day is a struggle just to get out of bed, get dressed and go to work. Do I want to turn off the alarm, pull the covers back over my head, and curl up into a ball?  Every damn day.  But I don't. It would be so easy. No one would blame me, after all, the pain I live with daily is just as crippling as any physical ailment.  There are days where I have no energy, no desire to do anything.  There are days where getting from the bed to the couch is a chore.  There are even days where I think about how easy it would be to make the pain go away, but I don't.  I refuse to give in, and I will not.

Sadly, there are far too many people out there that suffer from forms of mental illness, mainly depression.  According to that Archives of General Psychiatry, almost 15 million adults suffer from some sort of persistent depression.  Depression is also one of the leading causes of suicide.  almost two-thirds of the suicides completed in the US each year are linked to depression, and 90 percent of all who complete suicide are suffering from some form of mental illness, most of them untreated, so I am not seeing the joke.

Amazon is not the only culprit.  Several TV shows use suicide as a punch line.  Perhaps the most prevalent is Family Guy.  One episode goes so far as to show Peter taking off his belt, attaching it to the ceiling fan, and hanging himself.  Another has Stewie encouraging Meg to kill herself in order to get a full page in the year book.  I know the show prides itself on being politically incorrect and not sparing any group, from racial minorities to the physically handicapped.  However, there are some topics that are just off limits, and suicide is one of them.  While the show's creator, Seth McFarlane may defend itself as saying that much of the show is satire, I can't see how he could defend these scenes.  After all, satire is humor designed to bring about change, but I fail to see how Peter dangling from a ceiling fan is going to help.

Every day, I stand in front of a class of students, and we read literature that deals with topics ranging from the abolition of slavery, religious beliefs, and women's rights.  We see how perceptions have changed over time, and how authors have addressed these topics in order to bring about change. Perhaps it is time to take the same approach with the topics of mental illness and suicide.  Perhaps through a voice of reason, some one will use their talents to bring these topics to light and help bring about a change in perception too.

To those that have lost some one to suicide, and to those struggling daily under the weight of mental illness, I implore you to take a stand and make your voice heard.  Until people realize that there is no humor is suicide, then nothing will change.  It is not just a joke or a t-shirt, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

Author's Note:  I began this entry on Sunday, January 9, 2016.  Before I published it, I went to the Amazon website, and saw that they no longer offer the above mentioned shirts.  To the people that spoke out in outrage, especially Maggie Harder, thank you.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

An Open Letter to School Boards Everywhere

To School Boards Everywhere:

My name is David James.  I am a teacher and coach at College Park High School in The Woodlands, Texas, part of the Conroe Independent School District.  I was hoping that I might have a few minutes of your time.  I would like to talk to all of you about suicide.  I know it is not a popular topic, and honestly, it is not an easy to talk about, and in some areas, it may even be taboo, but it is one that must be addressed, and you, as school boards have an obligation to the students of your districts. The majority of their parents voted for you, so you have an obligation.

I realize this may not be the best time for many of you.  It is January, and for all the districts in Texas, that means that STAAR testing is just two and a half months away, in Massachusetts, the first part of the MCAS is less than a month away, our neighbors to the far north in Alaska will be getting AMPed up in March, and in the Heartland, Nebraskans will be looking forward to (or dreading) the NeSA. These tests are serious business.  For some students, they determine if students should repeat a grade, and for others, if they will graduate. I know that high stakes testing is a big deal to many of you. After all, accountability ratings are important, as are state funds, but kids can't be tested if they are no longer with us.

I speak from experience when I say this.  I lost my 13 year old son Peyton in October of 2014 after he hung himself.  He was an eighth grader at Forbes Middle School in Georgetown, Texas.  In no way am I abdicating my parental responsibility.  Peyton's mother and I knew Peyton was suffering emotionally.  He was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.  We got him into counseling, and, through his doctor, were trying to find medications to help, but had not found one that provided the desired results.  Unfortunately, we seem to be the exception, not the rule.  Since Peyton's death, I have talked to other parents who lost children to suicide, and the most common threads in the narratives were "We never saw it coming" or "We had no idea our child was suicidal" and "They always seemed so happy."

To many, it may seem puzzling that these parents were in the dark about their children, and it is easy to dismiss these parents as neglectful, but one of the many things I have learned over my 25 years as an educator, kids are really good at hiding things, especially when it comes to mental health. Students in class rooms across the country, including your district, suffer in silence.  They know that something is wrong with them, but they don't know what.  They look around the room and mistakenly think they are the only one that feels different.  They fear saying anything because they don't want to be ostracized or humiliated by their peers.  They don't want to talk to talk to teachers, or counselors, or administrators for the same reasons.  Well, that, plus we are adults, which means we would never understand.

Because education has become data driven, here is some data provided by the #JasonFoundation and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC):

  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for ages 10-24. (CDC)
  • Suicide is the SECOND leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18. (CDC)
  • More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza, and chronic lung disease, COMBINED.
  • Each day in our nation there are an average of over 5,400 attempts by young people grades 7-12.
  • Four out of Five teens who attempt suicide have given clear warning signs
  • Over the past decade, however, the rate has again increased to 12.1 per 100,000. Every day, approximately 105 Americans die by suicide. (CDC)
  • There is one death by suicide in the US every 13 minutes. (CDC)
  • 16% of students reported seriously considering suicide. (CDC)
  • 13% of students reported creating a plan. (CDC)
In addition, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), "At least 90 percent of all people who died by suicide were suffering from a mental illness at the time, most often depression. Among people who are depressed, intense emotional states such as desperation, hopelessness, anxiety, or rage increase the risk of suicide. People who are impulsive, or who use alcohol and drugs, are also at higher risk."If you walk into almost any classroom at any high school or middle school, you will easily find students that fit that description.

The same weekend that we lost Peyton, a junior at Georgetown High School took his life.  Since then, I personally know of SEVEN student suicides just within Texas.  The ages ranged from a ten year old in San Antonio to a senior in Rogers.  The two most recent taking place here in the Woodlands within two weeks of each other. Through various message boards, Facebook groups, and the #PeytonHeartProject, I have been lucky to talk to parents across the country and around the world.  To a person, we all agree that more can, and should, be done to educate not only students, but their parents (we grew up in an age when no one spoke of such things and could use the help). 

So what can a school board do?  Some states have enacted the #JasonFlattAct, that require regular training for teachers and staff in suicide recognition and prevention.  If such a law exist in your state, make sure that it is followed and implemented.  If not, lobby your state officials to pass such a law (such laws can be enacted with ZERO fiscal note).  Even if there is no state law, what is to stop you from implementing policy locally?  You could bring in experts from the community to speak to the students and/or the parents.  You can enact programs designed to give students a safe place to go where they can talk to some one trained to deal with these problems.  Yes, I understand that some of these things cost money, but is some one really going to complain that you are trying to save lives?  

I know I have presented quite a bit for you to think about.  I also know that there are people on the board or in the community that will disagree.  They will say it is the responsibility of the parents to deal with the issue of suicide, and that schools should just stay with teaching core subjects and how to pass the state mandated standardized tests, but they are wrong.  Mark Twain once said, "God made the Idiot for practice, and then He made the School Board."  I want you to do the right thing and prove him wrong.  After all, we can't teach them if they aren't there.  

David James