Bring­ing men­tal ill­ness out of the shad­ows

Fam­i­lies dis­cuss per­sonal heartaches in ef­fort to com­bat stigma

Sun Sentinel Broward Edition - - FRONT PAGE - By Brooke Baitinger Staff writer

“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 THRA HER/ URTESY SUSAN STOCKER/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

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.

AMY BETH BENNETT/STAFF PHO­TOG­RA­PHER

Gerda Klein holds a photo of her son David, who died by sui­cide at 41. He suf­fered from bipo­lar disorder.

KIM DIL­LON/COUR­TESY

Kim Dil­lon, left, of Boca Ra­ton, lost her brother, John Dil­lon, and sis­ter, Kath­leen Light, to sui­cide.

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