Have you ever asked yourself this question: At what point in life did I become aware that mental health is a big deal — as big a deal as physical and emotional health? We rush to the side of family members, friends, coworkers, and sometimes even strangers, offering our thoughts and prayers when they are suffering from a physical disease like cancer, or grieving over the loss of a loved one. But what do we do when we realize someone we know is suffering from a mental disorder?
My personal journey is a real-life answer to this question beginning with my own childhood trauma. “Life sucks” is an understatement when I recall my own adverse childhood experiences beginning in September of 1962.
In this time of life, as a five-year-old, I watched my sister die after being hit by a car; I was molested; and I watched my home burn down leaving us temporarily homeless — that is couch surfing to be exact. By January of 1963 we were living in a new community; I was attending a new school, and surrounded by new people. Unbeknownst to family members, though, I was stuck in a dark place under what I came to define as a spiral staircase in the space of childhood depression.
For the most part my childhood was spent surrounded by family members. One in particular was my Uncle Earl. As a kid I saw him engage in peculiar behavior. I interpreted his peculiar behavior as funny and sometimes even magical. When I watched him eat cold hot dogs right out of the fridge, I thought he was funny, especially since it was something I had never seen anyone else do. When I watched him lite a burner on the stove, quickly moving his hand in and out of the flame, I thought to myself, “My uncle must be magical because fire doesn’t hurt him!”
In actuality, though, I was witnessing the emergence of his life-long battle with schizophrenia. The person who kept me connected to my Uncle Earl was my mother. Though my young siblings and I often characterized her as mean, I also saw her as a warrior mother. She was an activist who marched and protested against racism and injustice. I watched many times as she geared up to protect her body in preparation for a march. Privately and ironically, though, she suffered mentally and physically under the strain of blatant racism in her workplace.
She was the Foreign Student Advisor at a major university in Pittsburgh, PA, and her guard was constantly up. I witnessed firsthand the strain of workplace racism as a direct impact to her mental and phyiscal wellbeing. These three storylines in my life are what led me to eventually become a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. Becoming a Mental Health First Aid Instructor solidified for me the idea of NOT being the person who shied away from others who may be suffering from a mental disorder; or NOT being the person who held the horror movie image of schizophrenia in their mind. For that I am truly grateful to my Uncle Earl and my warrior mother.
What It Boils Down to Is This: Mental Health First Aid is a Platform for Cultivating Change
In case you’re wondering what in the world is Mental Health First Aid, here’s the formal definition:
Mental Health First Aid is a skills-based training course that teaches participants about mental health and substance-use issues. The idea is to make Mental Health First Aid as common as CPR. Its key pillars are identify, understand, and respond.
Mental Health First Aid USA is managed, operated, and disseminated by the National Council for Behavioral Health. MHFA is built upon the ALGEE action plan. ALGEE is an acronym in mental health that everyone should know. Read this testimonial from Ethan Call, psychology student at Brigham-Young University in Utah (2017).
Uncle Earl’s Illness
The moment I realized the full extent of my uncle’s illness came in my senior year of college at the University of Pittsburgh. I lived on Negley Avenue in the Friendship section of Pittsburgh. The site where Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh is now located used to be St. Francis Hospital. In its heyday St. Francis was known — in addition to its medical care — for its psychiatric care. The apartment I lived in was walking distance to St. Francis, and one night, after an urgent call from my mother, I found myself standing at my uncle’s bedside in the psychiatric ward.
I watched him, arms and legs strapped to the bed. I listened to him cry out for me to help, to get him out of there. In that experience I became aware of something happening within me. In one part of my brain were images that I had seen in horror films where patients with schizophrenia were depicted in a particular way. In the other part of my brain I saw my uncle, my flesh and blood; someone I had grown up with, who visited my house. I saw a loved one in that bed. I saw the help that he needed as a human being. In the midst of that micro experience I unconsciously realized that a mental health illness or a person with a mental illness was not necessarily something I had to fear.
Managing the Perception of Others Towards Mental Illness
Shortly after graduation in 1980, I was working as a research scientist in the department of psychopharmacology at what was then called Western Psychiatric Institute & Clinic (WPIC). And guess what. Both my mother and my uncle were outpatients there under the care of a renowned psychiatrist, Dr. Jonathan Himmelhoch — my uncle for schizophrenia and my mother for what she suffered under the physical and emotional strain of workplace racism.
My uncle would periodically come up to my floor for short visits when he had an appointment with Dr. Himmelhoich. What stood out for me was how my co-workers responded to his presence and the questions obviously swirling around in their heads. So, eventually I got called into my supervisor’s office and questioned about my uncle — who is he and why is he coming to visit you?
In this micro experience came another revelation. Here I am working in a research institute that supposedly is designed to help and treat people like my uncle yet his presence was viewed as a threat. My uncle was never disruptive, he never did or said anything harmful, he came and sat with his niece usually for about five minutes or so, just to say hi. So. I quietly explained he is my uncle. My mother’s brother. He has caring family members just like any one else and I happen to be one of them. And on top of that he is Dr. Himmelhoch’s patient. You can easily give him a call to verify everything that I’m saying. It was never an issue after that.
Thus another stone was cast in my journey towards become a Mental Health First Aid Instructor. Another came some years later when I made a monumental decision to deal with my own functional depression stemming from childhood trauma and the guilt that had metastasized in me concerning my sister’s death. Many more years later, I got an email through OMA Center for Mind Body Spirit, saying that Steel Smiling, a Pittsburgh-based nonprofit organization founded by Julius Boatwright, was hosting a course to be certified in Mental Health First Aid.
The single most appealing aspect is that the training presented a community-based approach with the intention of cultivating change in the way people perceive mental health, mental illness, and those suffering from such. I was like, wow, this is great! I took the final step shortly thereafter when I was informed that Allegheny HealthChoices Inc (AHCI) was offering the Mental Health First Aid Instructor Certification, which I completed in 2018. Now I get to be a part of a global community dedicated to cultivating change in the face of mental health and mental illness. For that I am truly grateful!