Bringing mental illness out of the shadows
Families discuss personal heartaches in effort to combat stigma
“I am doing this work today because I want it in the curriculum of life.” Rita Thrasher, who started a campaign to promote mental health awareness
BOCA RATON – There are nights when Rita Thrasher is overcome with remorse over her daughter’s death.
Valerie Thrasher battled a mental illness for nearly 30 years until her death at 42, her mother said.
“I just thought ‘I have to remain focused,’ ” she said of trying to cope after her daughter ran away from home at 18. “I wanted to do what was right by Valerie.”
Her daughter’s death spurred Thrasher, 85, to begin advocating on behalf of mental health. In 2015, she started a campaign to promote mental health awareness, rounding up a group of women in Palm Beach County who each has a story to tell about the turmoil of mental illness.
They began calling themselves “I Am One” women, pledging to break the silence to abolish the stigma associated with mental disorders.
About 28 women organize luncheons to recognize people and organizations in the community that support mental health awareness. They hold forums at sites such as Boca Raton Regional Hospital and Palm Beach County high schools and universities to address the county’s mental health needs.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, one in four adults
has a mental condition.
Alliances such as “I Am One” allow people who may be experiencing mental health issues to get support from people who have gone through the same thing, said licensed psychologist Dr. Seth Bernstein, who works with the “I Am One” women.
When people in positions of authority or local leaders in the community talk publicly about mental health concerns, it opens the door for more people to get help, he said.
“Funding for these folks affected is not adequate at the local, state or federal level,” he said. “It speaks to the urgency of mental health issues and the need for this community and every community to be dealing with this.”
In addition to Thrasher, other members include Gerda Klein, a Boynton Beach woman who took on a mental illness advocacy role to cope with her son’s suicide; and Kim Dillon, a Boca hospital worker whose two siblings died years apart by suicide.
Here are their stories.
Learning ‘to be brave’
The women came together in August 2015 when Thrasher set out to create a women’s advocacy role for Boca Raton’s Promise, a nonprofit group that funds efforts like “I Am One” and other mental health campaigns.
Thrasher began the nonprofit because of her daughter, whose bipolar disorder put her daughter on a path of hardship early in her life, she said.
Valerie Thrasher’s behavioral problems began at age 11when she refused to sit in class and got into fights at Pompano Beach Middle School, Thrasher said. As a teen, the girl faced multiple hospital visits, where shewas diagnosed with bipolar disorder, her mother said. Her parents placed her at a treatment center in Miami when she was 16.
But Valerie resisted psychiatric help. At 18, she left the center and moved to North Carolina. There she crashed stolen cars, abused drugs andwas in and out of hospitals, jails and rehabilitation centers, her mother said.
Valerie called her mother every four or six months, usually collect and usually to beg for cash, her mother said. She told her mother about her escapades, or Thrasher would find out from Valerie’s friends, who would call her to tell her when her daughter was in the hospital again.
Thrasher was reluctant to send her daughter money that she knew might be used to buy drugs, she said. “My heart broke,” she said. “I could do absolutely nothing.” This pattern continued until 2004, when Valerie’s body was found in the woods near her house in Hendersonville, N.C. She was 42.
An autopsy failed to determine the cause of death, her mother said.
Talking about itwas difficult for her, she said. “I had to learn to be brave,” she said. “I had to decide to be bold.”
Since she founded her nonprofit in 2011, initiatives that promote mental health awareness across diverse groups of people, such as students, teachers, firefighters, police and elected officials, have emerged from the group’s efforts and fundraising.
The “I Am One” group meets monthly.
The women wear red, white and blue buttons that read “IAM1” to demonstrate that they have been affected by mental illness — either losing a family member, a friend or helping someone close to them cope — and to start conversations about their experience.
“So I am doing this work today because I want it in the curriculum of life,” said Thrasher, a former Broward County English teacher. “I want it in the curriculum of schools, communities of faith, in workplaces, and I want it talked about at home.”
Thrasher’s work is vital to the community, said Boca Raton Mayor Susan Haynie, who has attended the luncheons and forums with Thrasher and the women of “I Am One.”
“We have such a mental health crisis nationally, and within other communities as well,” she said. “[Thrasher] has suffered a lot of personal tragedy, and it makes her so passionate about this issue. She’s such a leader in our community when it comes to mental health issues.”
Advocacy helped her cope
Gerda Klein’s family faced a turbulent 25 years as her son dealt with medications, side effects and outbursts as a result of his mental illness, she said.
Her son David Klein was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1989, four years after his younger brother’s death to cancer, Klein said. After David’s brother Jonathan died, David talked openly about his depression. The brothers were only 18 months apart, and starred in plays together in high school, she said. They were best friends.
It was only when David attended a bipolar support group that he realized there were others like him, she said. “For a long time, I was looking to find the kid I raised and the beautiful boy that I knew,” she said. “The one that used to make us laugh and was joyous all the time. I kept looking and hoping I’d find him again somewhere in all that illness.”
There were moments when David seemed to get better, Klein said. As an adult, he became a husband and a father to twins, and secured a job as a real estate appraiser. But he struggled to support that family when the housing market collapsed years ago, she said. His children were 5 when he killed himself, she said.
Klein, 82, wonders if fostering his love for playing violin would have saved him. At14, hewanted to study violin in college, but his family encouraged him “to pick another career that would be a little more financially stable,” Gerda Klein said. “Many years later, when his illness got a little more severe, he told me, ‘You know, when I play my violin, I don’t hear voices.’ ”
The only thing that helped her grieve was advocacy, she said.
Klein, who lives in Boynton Beach, helped found the Boynton Beach Mental Health Committee with city officials in 2014. The committee acts as a community resource to help connect those seeking help with local services.
She was one of the first “I Am One” women and began sharing her story to abolish the stigma that she suspects kept David from getting the help and support he needed.
“The most important thing is to talk about it,” she said. “A few years ago, you couldn’t even talk about breast cancer, and now there are pink lids on yogurt containers. Iwant to see mental illness being treated in the sameway.”
Former Boynton Beach Mayor Woodrow Hay formed the committee with Klein.
“Gerda Klein has been the liaison for Boynton Beach mental health,” he said. “She’s been the cement that kind of holds the blocks together, and she’s done an outstanding job.”
‘Losing two is devastating’
Five days before her brother killed himself in 2014, Kim Dillon attended a luncheon organized by Boca Raton’s Promise, fromwhich “I Am One” would later form.
Dillon, 52, of Boca Raton, went there because she still was reeling from her sister’s suicide two years earlier, she said.
As she attended the luncheon, “I didn’t know I would be going through this again five days later," Dillon recalled. "Losing one [sibling] is tragic. Losing two is devastating."
Her siblings, Kathleen Light and John Dillon, bothwere torn by mental illness — Light with depression and Dillon with manic depression. Now, Kim Dillon wants to ensure people get help for their illnesses and grasp hope for a brighter future. "I have to get thew ord out for them, to speak for them," she said of her siblings. "Their strength is inside of me."
Dillon these days is the director of risk management at Boca Raton Regional Hospital, where she is responsible for patient safety, and serves as chair of the patient safety committee.
Dillon’s personal experience contributes to her efforts at the hospital, said Maria Edelman, a risk management assistant who works closely with Dillon.
Dillon has been instrumental to improving safety conditions of rooms used to host patients who have been contained under the state’s Baker Act, she said.
Dillon also was responsible for creating a brochure containing community resources, such as information on suicide prevention and hotline numbers for patients leaving the hospital who were experiencing emotional or mental issues when they were admitted, she said.
“She comes with a wealth of knowledge, and she’s really been helpful to enhancing our program,” she said.
Edelman lost her cousin to suicide four years ago, and her brother took his life seven years prior, she said. Dillon’s transparency about her sibling’s deaths, along with her advocacy toward mental health, inspires Edelman to be more outspoken about her own loss, she said.
“She’s my mentor, and my hero,” she said. “She’s been very open and approachable. She understands what’s going on.”
Dillon sees patients enter the hospital with a mental illness who receive help, but who don’t have a treatment plan after they leave — an issue known to plague mentally ill patients across the nation, she said.
“They have a real illness and should be treated with dignity, like they have a real disease."
Dillon said she tried to help her siblings separately. Kathy Light, 50, who battled depression throughout her life, “had that gift of letting everybody feel special,” she said. “But I guess people didn’t give it to her the same.”
She battled it with alcohol most of the time and didn’t talk about her struggle, she said. Light died by suicide in 2012, Dillon said.
When John Dillon was younger, he had a tendency to be shy, she said. But once he got involved in something, he was everyone’s favorite person.
"Anything we did, we did together,” Kim Dillon said. “He was the heart and soul of the family."
But that changed when he reached adulthood, Dillon said. He was diagnosed with manic depression when he was 18, Dillon said. He became destructive, stealing cars, ditching work and staying up all night drinking or doing drugs, she said.
"I didn’t recognize this person," she said.
The destructive cycle ended for several years, then started again. "Thiswas a man that continued to pursue his degree in nursing and after every stumble, kept trying to piece his life back together,” Dillon said.
The 48-year-old took his life in July 2014, she said.
Dillon’s mother, Patricia Looker, said she is proud of her daughter for having the strength to tell the family’s story of loss.
“I think it’s wonderful to do anything that might help somebody who might be going through it, even to hear about it,” she said. “I hope it will grow and help somebody down the road, and maybe there will be more help available because people will understand mental illness.”
Rita Thrasher, left, founder of Boca Raton’s I Am One initiative, has dedicated herself to raising awareness of mental illness. Her daughter, Valerie Thrasher, above, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She died at age 42.
Gerda Klein holds a photo of her son David, who died by suicide at 41. He suffered from bipolar disorder.
Kim Dillon, left, of Boca Raton, lost her brother, John Dillon, and sister, Kathleen Light, to suicide.