The Dangerous Type

Four years ago this week, (the third week of February) I was discharged from Spring Harbor, a psychiatric hospital in Westbrook, Maine.

It was my most recent hospitalization. I have been in and out of psychiatric hospitals for more than 40 years, sometimes on a voluntary basis; other times as an involuntary patient. I have been hospitalized in Arizona, Tennessee, Oregon and Maine. So, I consider myself a little bit of an expert on this subject.

Trust me on this: being a patient on a psychiatric ward sucks. In all fairness, being a patient in any kind of hospital for any reason is no picnic for anyone. Hospitals are typically places we go to when we are ill or injured. Other than child birth, most people do their very best to avoid hospitals.

It is the same for psychiatric patients. I have heard people say or joke that they could use a “vacation” on a psych unit or that “mental people use hospitals to avoid their responsibilities.” These are actual quotations.

I have been on vacations. I have been a patient on a psychiatric unit. Believe me. There is nothing similar between these two things. Nothing.

For more than four decades now I have been taking a wide variety of psychiatric medications. Today, I take five different medications to treat everything from life-sucking depression to anxiety and yes, the consequences of a schizo-affective disorder.

Imagine your spouse telling you that they had to stay in the basement in order to get away from the government? Or imagine what it would be like if your sibling called you, crying and confused because they had gotten lost on the way home from work?

Imagine not being able to remember anything that happened last week or being unable to read more than two pages a day? This is my life off medications. And yup, this is also my life on medications. The meds just make the consequences less frequent and less severe.

Why do I say all this? Am I just looking for sympathy? Shouldn’t I keep this stuff private?

Take me to the river

I have been publicly open about my mental illness for several years now. That, and my pitiful attempts at trying to be a father, are the two things I want to be remembered for. They are the two things in my life, other than Laura, that matter most to me. They are my only real contributions to society, to the world around me.

It doesn’t get any better than this

Of course, like most people, I am generally selective about what I share on social media. I try to portray myself as witty, as some kind of half-assed satirist, a fun-loving guy, someone you would want to be friends with; a hard-working and responsible member of society; a successful husband and father.

Maybe I am those things. Maybe not.

But it seems that publicly sharing my personal struggles with mental illness gives others permission to reach out to me in search of a friendly ear, advice about a family member or their own struggle with some kind of psychiatric illness.

That is so gratifying to me. Beyond words.

I want to break down and destroy the myths and stereotypes that accompany mental illness. Imagine a friend telling you that they have been diagnosed with brain cancer. What would you say? What would you do?

I’m almost positive you would not say something like “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” or “it’s all in your head,” which, ironically is sort of true about brain cancer. Why is mental illness different? Why is it still okay for Hollywood to refer to psychiatrists as “shrinks?”

Those battling cancer are described as brave and courageous. We wear ribbons to show our support. We are quick to offer our empathy, our support, our understanding.

Tell someone that you are hearing voices and the reaction is a lot different. Trust me. Way different.

Honestly, what do you think of when you think about someone with a psychiatric illness? Do you think about someone like the character “Multiple Miggs” in the movie Silence of the Lambs; or do you think of them as your neighbor, co-worker or someone walking their dog past your home?

At the start of this piece, I stated that I have been in and out of psychiatric units for more than four decades. That is true. What is also true is that during the same time period, I have purchased a home, paid taxes, worked hard and was promoted in the private sector, raised two kids, held together a marriage for more than 19 years (and counting). Today I still mow my lawn, pay my bills and spend time with friends and family.

The scary thing? I’m a lot like you and other people you know and trust. The idea of being diagnosed with cancer is terrifying and for good reason. I have lost close friends to that horrible disease. Unfortunately, I have also lost some very good and close friends to mental illness.

So that’s why I’m open about my struggles. That’s why I try to remember to take my meds, even though they sometimes adversely impact my libido, my energy, my sleep and appetite.

Later this week, I am scheduled to have another ECT treatment (Electro-Convulsive Therapy). ECT treatments terrify me. I am afraid that I will not wake up from the anesthesia. Basically, ECT involves having enough electricity beamed into your brain to induce a seizure. So why do I go through with it?

Because, for me and many, many others, it works. It allows me to live. Once a month, I participate in an ECT support ZOOM meeting with other patients. It is so gratifying to see the progress that many of these people have made. To see them smile, laugh and be able to hold a conversation. To hear them say they were reluctant to get ECT until they heard me and others share our own experiences.

That’s what matters. That’s what is important to me.

If you ever want to reach out; if you ever need a friendly ear, please do not hesitate to contact me. If you don’t know me or have my contact info, you can ALWAYS reach out 24/7 365 days a year toll free at 1.888.568.1112 if you are concerned about yourself or somebody else.

Thank you,


Shiny, happy people

The 19th Century French novelist Romain Rolland once opined that “we are reckless in our use of the lovely word, friend.”  Nowhere is that more true than on Facebook and other social media platforms.

As an example, as of today, I have 1,202 “friends” on Facebook. Really? Do I have more than a thousand people who would loan me $20, help me with a home repair project or drive me to and from a doctor’s appointment?

Probably not. Because when you look deeper into my life you will see that I am actually blessed with close to 20 real friends. These people do not judge me, but will also share their honest opinions if asked.

In a few weeks, one of my real friends will get out of bed at 6 a.m. in order to pick me up at my home, drive me to Sanford for an ECT treatment and wait roughly two hours before he can drive me home with zero compensation. Now, that is a friend.

What about all those other “friends” on social media? Well, for starters, they are better described as contacts in a very large and fluid Rolodex.

Sure, social media can be fun, interesting and sometimes informative, but it’s important to remember that, for the most part, you are looking through a carefully controlled lens as you scroll through the posts on your social media page. Few of us would go to the grocery store wearing only our underwear. (Some things are best left to the imagination.)

When you see a friend’s post on social media, more often than not you are seeing only what they want you to see: their happy family, pictures of their vacation or beloved pets, etc.  What you rarely, if ever, see, is someone posting that they will need to file bankruptcy or facing divorce because of infidelity.

Instead, you are seeing only the beautiful posts, which can lead to feelings of envy and inferiority, especially among young people.

Teenage Wasteland

According to studies by the Pew Research Center and the Mayo Clinic, teenagers’ use of social media “allows teens to create online identities, communicate with others and build social networks. These networks can provide teens with valuable support, especially helping those who experience exclusion or have disabilities or chronic illnesses.”

“But social media use can also negatively affect teens, according to the 2018 study. Social media can distract them, disrupt their sleep, and expose them to bullying, rumor spreading, unrealistic views of other people’s lives and peer pressure.”

The risks might be related to how much social media teens use. A 2019 study of more than 6,500 12- to 15-year-olds in the U.S. found that those who spent more than three hours a day using social media might be at heightened risk for mental health problems. Another 2019 study of more than 12,000 13- to 16-year-olds in England found that using social media more than three times a day predicted poor mental health and well-being in teens.

Other studies also have observed links between high levels of social media use and depression or anxiety symptoms.

As a strategic communications consultant, I can tell you that maintaining your own online reputation is very important. Nothing is ever truly “erased” on the Web. Businesses and political campaigns need to be fully aware and consent to everything they post in the digital town square.

Remember: it is often better to just scroll on by posts that seem like “click-bait,” otherwise choose your words and images carefully. Because, whether you like it, people will judge you by the words you use.

Originally published on the Saco Bay News website.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Earlier this week, my community lost a great man. Don Wilson was 73 and apparently living with severe depression. Hopefully we all learned a lesson from this tragic event: Mental health disorders can be fatal, especially without professional health treatment.

Can you imagine being in so much pain that you would hurl yourself in front of a moving train?

Mr. Wilson (as I will always call him) was a community hero. Within hours of his death, our community rallied around his family. A multitude of sympathy was shared on social media, and we all wondered what went wrong.

Mr. Wilson was woven into the fabric of Biddeford. He touched hundreds (if not thousands) of lives. He was so dedicated as a teacher, coach and athletic director. Everyone, it seemed, had a story to tell, a favorite remembrance or a funny story about him.

He was a gregarious community leader who spent so many years supporting every life he touched. Smiling, generous, humorous and full of life is how so many of us described him.

But in the latter days of his life he was fighting an inner war with some very powerful demons.

According to reports by his friends and family, he openly talked about his feelings. He was, reportedly, recently hospitalized for depression. But finally, he could not fight the pain anymore.

I simply cannot imagine his pain. His suffering. His fragility.

Tough guys don’t dance.

Mr. Wilson was a role model for me. He was a gentlemen who did not speak a bad word about anyone. As I said before: he was kind and generous; quick with a smile and always willing to help.

Mr. Wilson was from a generation that usually did not talk openly about depression or suicide. Typically, obituaries of those who committed suicide described the death as “died unexpectedly.”

And there is an abundance of stigma associated with mental health, especially among men. Depression is a sign of weakness and laziness, society says. “Stop your pity party and stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

Unlike so many men of his generation, Mr. Wilson courageously bucked that trend. He shared his feelings with friends and family members. But in the end he lost that battle. In the final hours of his life he took matters into his own hands.

Some people die from cancer and some people survive. That is true for almost every illness, including mental illness. Talking about mental health is not easy. In fact, it can be overwhelming.

I still cringe when I hear someone refer to a psychiatrist as a “shrink.” I could write all day about the stigma associated with mental health.

Until we all can accept mental health disorders as genuine and potentially fatal illnesses, we will have people fighting an invisible and overwhelming war.

Depression is not feeling sorry for yourself. Having depression is not a sign of laziness. Depression does not discriminate.

Depression is a pervasive disease, but it can be treated. If you or someone you care about is fighting depression and/or suicidal thoughts, please contact the national suicide hotline: 1-888-568-1112, 24 hours a day, seven days per week and 365 days a year.

Thank you, Mr. Wilson for all that you gave to your community. As far as I’m concerned, you remain as a role model for me.

No easy answers

Joining other mental health advocates in discussing stigma
Joining other mental health advocates in discussing stigma

In the wake of yet another senseless crime — this one, which struck close to home in Saco — there is a renewed debate about what to do with people who suffer from a mental illness.

Earlier this month, Connor MacCalister allegedly slit the throat of an unsuspecting grandmother, Wendy Boudreau, in a Shaw’s supermarket.

According to a story about the incident in the Portland Press Herald, “[h]orrific crimes like this, committed by individuals with profound mental illness, are rare in Maine, yet each time they occur, the same question arises: How could someone like that be out on the street, in a position to commit such a brutal crime?”

Though I consider myself a self-appointed advocate of mentally ill people, I struggle with the question because it hits home for me.

As mentioned several times throughout this blog, I suffer from a mental illness, with a range of diagnoses.

As of this writing, there are more than 67 reader comments on the Portland Press Herald story. Those comments run the gamut of reactions. Some say we need better access to outpatient mental health services. Others say mental illness is nothing more than a ploy to escape responsibility for a crime. Still others say, patients should be forced to take their medications, while others say we should go back in time and warehouse individuals with mental illness in institutions like AMHI (The Augusta Mental Health Institute).

Admittedly, it’s pretty damn hard to argue for the civil liberties of the mentally ill, especially in the wake of a horrific murder. Where are the advocates for Wendy Boudreau’s civil rights?

Ms. Boudreau’s only mistake was to go to a supermarket to buy ice cream. She had done nothing wrong other than being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Stigma on a slippery slope

On the other hand, we tread a slippery slope when we generalize mental illness.

For example, how exactly do we define a “profound” mental illness, as the Press Herald story did? How do we know in advance that a mentally ill person is going to commit such a heinous crime?

In fact, violent acts committed by people with serious mental illness comprise an exceptionally small proportion of the overall violent crime rate in the U.S.

Mentally ill persons are far more likely to be the victims of violence, not its perpetrators, according to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW)

In its March 2011 article, “Budgets Balanced at Expense of Mentally Ill,” the NASW newsletter also mentions a new report by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration that documents a nationwide decline in behavioral health care spending as a share of all health care spending, from 9.3 percent in 1986 to just 7.3 percent, or $135 billion out of $1.85 trillion, in 2005.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in five Americans suffers from some sort of mental illness. Of course, the statistics include depression, anxiety and treatable bipolar disorders. Put me in that category.

But what do we do with people who suffer from more extreme cases of these symptoms and other issues including paranoid-schizophrenia.

There have been times when I have been in that category, too.

Should the government force me to take medications? Should I be confined to the Riverview Psychiatric Institute?

Every day, I get up, take a shower, get dressed and go to work. Just like you.

I pay my taxes, enjoy the company of my friends and take care of my home and pets. Just like you.

I have been married to the love of my life for nearly 13 years. I successfully raised two stepsons. I give back and volunteer in my community. How do I do all that if I have a moderating mental illness?

First, I take a wide range of medications every day. Two, I see a therapist every two weeks; and third — perhaps most importantly — I have a support network of caring family members and friends, not to mention safe and stable housing.

These things are unfortunately out of reach for many people with a mental illness.

A broken system

I have relatively good and comprehensive health insurance, but even so it took me weeks to get connected to a psychiatrist after my last hospitalization, some two years ago. There is a profound lack of psychiatric beds in the state of Maine.

There are budget constraints to consider. Many mentally ill people — especially those with more profound illnesses — do not have access to premium health insurance. They live on the edge, relying on the minimum benefits of Medicaid (Maine Care). Still other insurance plans offer minimal coverage for mental health services, both for outpatient and inpatient care. For example many plans will pay for only 12 sessions of outpatient therapy (capped).

Supposedly, after three months, you are cured and ready to hit the streets.

Mental health providers do not choose their occupation to “get rich,” as suggested in the reader comments of the Press Herald Story. Social workers salaries are among the lowest of college-educated professionals. A manager of a fast-food restaurant typically makes more than a social worker.

Social workers do not choose their occupation as a way to get rich quick off the back of taxpayers.

Psychotropic medications are some of the most expensive on the market. Patient records are confidential, and sharing them between providers is a complex, burdensome task.

So what do we do? How do we fix a broken system?

Is it a matter of more money? Do we round up everyone we think might have a mental illness and lock them away? Do we criminally charge people for crimes they may commit in the future?

I do not know the answers to those questions. I do not know if Wendy Boudreau would still be alive today if we had better community-based mental health services. I do not know if her murder was preventable.

But I do know that Wendy Boudreau’s death was utterly senseless, and she did not deserve what happened to her on that hot August day in a supermarket.