May is Mental Health Awareness month. Five years ago this month my life turned upside down.
When I was in medical school, I spent 2 months doing a psychiatric rotation at a V.A. Hospital. This was a requirement. I had no interest in psychiatry and honestly never even thought about mental health disorders before medical school, especially during the first 2 years of school. Sure, I learned about the disorders, neurological pathways, possible causes and pharmacologic treatments but I thought of it as a fiction novel not real disorders that happen to real people.
My rotation was during a frigid winter at the V.A. Hospital in Chicago. We were introduced to the in-patient ward staff, instructed on areas to go to and avoid and then assigned our patients to follow. I remember sitting in my first interview with an inpatient. When I arrived at the physician’s consultation room, the patient was already there sitting opposite the doctor. The patient had schizophrenia and was heavily medicated. He seemed harmless, cooperative and sedated. The session lasted 30 minutes with lots of questions about his medical progress, relationship with other patients, satisfaction with his accommodations and goals to accomplish. When we were done, I stood up to say goodbye and open the door for him. When he stood up, I realized he was over 6 feet 10 inches tall and towered over me like a giant. I immediately went into fight or flight mode. I started sweating, was anxious, nervous, fearful and terrified all at the same time. I felt threatened that he was going to lash out at me. There was no basis for this fear. This was a fantasy I immediately fabricated in my mind from watching too many horror movies in the 70’s. He politely grunted goodbye and was escorted back to the common area by a hospital orderly. It was at this exact moment that I realized I would either fear these patients or learn compassion. I chose fear.
As the rotation continued, I found myself (and my fellow students) spending more time in the V.A. gymnasium playing basketball than seeing patients. We would study diseases and treatments over breakfast, then play hoops for 2 hours, then lunch and home. I knew the names of all the diseases, symptoms, possible causes and treatment options; I just couldn’t put a face to each disorder because I was afraid of being with people who were psychologically different, diseased or afflicted. Bipolar, schizophrenia, multiple personality disorders and PTSD were cool to talk about and learn the medications that control the symptoms, but to see a person express these disorders live frightened me. Therefore, I avoided patient care for the remainder of my rotation. Sad, but true.
My experience in medical school, where it was a requirement to see and interact with psychiatric patients is not that different from any of us who interact with friends, family, neighbors, work mates or strangers who have similar emotional or diagnosed psychiatric conditions. At first it is frightening and uncomfortable. How can someone be there physically but not there mentally or emotionally? It takes time to adjust to and tolerate people with mania, narcissism, or dissociative behavior and to see the real person underneath the disorder.
In May of 2014, my wife Mara of over 20 years experienced a manic episode. Looking back, I should have seen it coming like dark rain clouds before the storm but mostly I just accepted her increasingly bizarre behavior as eccentric. She always had a type A, outgoing and friendly personality. She has always had a lot of friends, been extremely cordial to everyone and made everyone in her presence feel loved and wanted. As her mania slowly progressed, I noticed that many of her friends were not around. Maybe they were growing weary of her changing personality and possibly frightened by her overly talkative behavior and odd mannerisms. Her obsessions with objects, people, and certain situations were bordering on psychiatric and then BAM!
I was away the weekend of May 23, 2014 with my parents and brother at a retreat in Colorado. It was one of the few times I had gone away without her. The first night I was gone, she reached the pinnacle of her disease and by the next day I was on a plane home. At 8 pm we embraced. I didn’t want to let her go because I would then have to make some very difficult decisions. With the help of a dear friend who is a psychologist, we decided that she should see her psychologist and a psychiatrist the next day and we would hopefully be able to keep her from being admitted to an inpatient setting. Luckily, with the help of her providers, she was started on medication and started to heal.
Over the next 6 months she underwent her own type of transformation. As she proclaims: ‘I went from medication to meditation’. She finished a short course of medications and therapy and then started alternative treatments. Between hypnotherapy, crystals, shamans, yoga, meditation and religious counseling she was transformed. She is back and better than ever!
Mara took her experience and decided to help others. She started a mental health awareness foundation called Extraordinary Lives Foundation (ELF) in 2016. The mission of the foundation is to raise awareness around mental health issues concentrating on children and adolescent youth. Her belief is that mental health issues begin in adolescence and worsen over time if not recognized and treated. She has run several awareness events in our community and around the country and is currently promoting awareness at several Major League baseball stadiums throughout the nation. ELF volunteers get people actively involved in spreading the word that May is mental health awareness month by hi-fiving everyone admitted to the stadium with large foam hands. I remember the first game we attended down with the San Diego Padres. The volunteers were nervous and anxious about how to spread the word. I picked up 2 large foam hands and just started hi-fiving everyone I saw. This became contagious. At the Angels game 2 weeks later, I counted over 10, 000 fans I slapped hands with and over a dozen who made contributions to our foundation. Last year we went to Atlanta and New York and this year Mara is hitting all 5 California Major League stadiums and a minor league stadium in Sacramento. Eventually the goal is to make May as visible as October is for Breast Cancer awareness. Imagine an annual mental health awareness day at every stadium where players dress in green to represent mental health. Wouldn’t that be amazing?
Mara has attended several city council committee meetings all over Orange County. Through her efforts several cities have declared May as National Mental Health Awareness Month. This is another step towards helping people recognize that the mental health of the nation is a national emergency and that funding is vitally needed to give sufferers the help they need.
Mara has written and self-published a children’s book: The Power of Piggie Bear. This is a wonderful, fun and informative book which teaches children (and adults) how to recognize their emotions and how to control them through 2 simple exercises. First: deep belly breathing (yoga style) and second: a self-hug releasing natural good feeling chemicals through your body. This really works. Like exercise, if you do it every day, you will see a difference. Mara has donated books to all our local elementary and middle schools.
As you can tell, this is a very personal and important topic for me. I encourage an open dialog with my patients andI discuss and offer help when needed. I recommend therapy with psychologists, psychiatrists, hypnotherapists, alternative healers, clergy: anyone or any approach that they choose. Many of my patients are surprised when I ask about multiple alternative topics to routine obstetrics and gynecology. Topics including family life, sex, work and of course their own well emotional well-being.
If you don’t ask , you will not know and if you don’t know, you can never help guide others to heal.
Please speak out. Ask for help. Recognize that others are suffering and offer help. This is our obligation as both healers and human beings.