Blog /August 2011
My brief summer internship at PEERS was quite an experience to say the least. With everything from sitting in on episode tapings with Shannon to attending my first zumba class with Jenee for an interview, my time was spent learning about the media/marketing industry. But along the way, I found out more about the organization itself and how dedicated each employee was to the cause. I discovered that, whether it was through a suggestion of early morning dancing to get everyone pumped for the day or through kind words from every staff member on people’s birthdays, PEERS promoted mental health in their own company as well as in the outside world. Through the dozens of articles and blogs I read, and various interviews I listened to, I realized how big a deal mental health is becoming and how hard we should work together to fight the stigma that engulfs the mental health community.
But the one thing that I really took away from this entire summer was this: to keep an open mind. There is a wealth of not only informational facts out there, but an abundance of things people can teach you. I learned that people are truly kind from the man who biked around the world to raise mental health awareness. I found out that even the small act of promising to listen will inspire others to fight back from our Facebook pledge. I discovered that all people need is support and hope from the man who battled suicide and now runs a program to help others with a mental illness. I was inspired not to put up with any crap from anyone by a mental health blog writer. I was reminded that happy people make others around them happy too by a zumba instructor. And I learned from so many involved in the mental health community to never let the fear win, whether it's the fear that you’ll get fired because of your condition or fear that people won’t accept you or fear that others will judge you, never let fear stop you from anything.
Overall, my time at PEERS was a rewarding, inspiring, and overall good time. I was moved by the stories I heard from interviews and read from articles and know now more than ever that just one person can really make a difference.
When I began journalism school at the University of Southern California, my dream was to be a magazine writer. I had no interest in broadcast reporting, but my master’s program required students take multimedia classes. Everyday our television-broadcast teacher gave us a current events quiz. Someone in the class figured out the instructor pulled her questions from the morning news rundown on our local public radio station. I began listening to public radio to bump up my quiz scores, but something even better happened. The radio bug bit me. Using sound for storytelling fascinated me. After graduate school I stayed in Los Angeles and went to work as producer for NPR and later American Public Media. Our weak job market brought me back to the Bay Area (we can talk about long-term underemployment and mental health on another day).
Months after moving back to the Bay Area, I landed a job at PEERS. On the first day my supervisor Shannon Eliot gave me a checklist of duties. To my absolute delight I saw “podcast” on the list. I couldn’t wait to pull out my microphone and look for story ideas. Our Assistant Director Lisa Smusz suggested I review an article about people linking Casey Anthony to bipolar disorder. Anthony is the recently freed mother from Florida accused of killing her toddler. Mental health advocate and writer Andy Behrman wrote the article for About.com. I interviewed him for the podcast about bipolar stigma and why he stopped being a spokesman for the makers of Abilfy. Not only did he stop endorsing the drug, but he made a video spoofing Abilify.
My interview with Behrman was great, but not without technical drama. My recorder cut off in the middle of the interview, there was a problem with my phone and one of the recording devices left my stimulating interview with an annoying buzz sound. Can you say, “AHHHHHHH!”? Keep in mind, I come from a background of working in a studio with an engineer. I was a one-woman news team in this instance. But like my grandma always says, “It’s gonna be okay because it has to be.” In other words, somehow things will work out. She was right. Thanks to some in-person coaching from PEERS receptionist/media genius Oden, and long-distance support from sound engineering gods Carlos Ascencio and Henry Howard, I was able to polish up the sound quality. I’m excited about the future of this show. The PEERS Podcast will feature a variety of voices and stories related to mental health. Some stories will make you reach for the tissue box or the phone to contact your legislator. Other stories will inspire and even make you laugh. Whatever your reaction, I hope you walk away from your ear buds and speakers with some enlightenment on mental health. We welcome your ears and a few minutes of your time to the PEERS Podcast. Thanks for listening!
If you have suggestions for future shows, please leave a comment.
As I start my new career at P.E.E.R.S. as an Outreach Assistant, it marks the first time that I have worked in the mental health field. I come to this job with previous outreach experience, but that experience comes from working on an environmental justice campaign in West Berkeley, California. My role working on the campaign was to help neighbors of a massive steel foundry, Pacific Steel Casting, to organize and form into a coalition to stop toxics being emitted into their community by PSC. There is quite a discrepancy between working on an environmental justice campaign and in the mental health field, but there is a correlation as well. That connection is that toxics in the community are affecting people’s mental health.
The most dangerous airborne pollutant that Pacific Steel produces is a heavy metal called Manganese. Excessive exposure to manganese has been linked to a brain disease with psychological and neurological disorders known as manganism (http://www.manganese-health.org/about_us/healtheffects). Manganism has been connected with a psychiatric disorder (locura manganica) that closely resembles schizophrenia (http://www.manganese-health.org/about_us/healtheffects). In 2007, neighbors of Pacific Steel Casting, conducted independent air tests using particle monitors to track heavy metal pollution from the facility. Thirty samples were found to exceed World Health Organization and/or the Federal EPA guidelines for exposure to heavy metal toxins nickel and manganese.(http://www.gcmonitor.org/section.php?id=220)
It is shocking to know that dangerous heavy metals, like manganese and nickel, are constantly being emitted at such excessive levels by major industry in our communities. But what is even more shocking, is to look at the overall cumulative picture when it comes to measuring toxics being emitted. Pacific Steel Casting is not the only polluter, and manganese and nickel are not the only known toxics that are being released into our environment. The current Toxic Release Inventory of toxic chemical list that is comprised and complied by the Federal EPA contains 593 individually listed chemicals (http://www.epa.gov/tri/trichemicals/). Many of those listed chemicals are known neurotoxins or have been linked to mental health issues.
If we as a society are striving to maintain positive mental health, we must address the issue of toxics in our communities. The fact of the matter is that pollution is only going to get worse if people do not take action to demand clean and toxic free neighborhoods. This means that neurological brain diseases like maganism, and other mental health conditions will be on the rise. It is a frightening concept to imagine, and cause for mental stress; especially for those living in industrial areas. But not only is it mental stress, it is unnecessary mental stress. Because the truth is, we as citizens have the right (a human right) to not have to live in communities that are plagued by dangerous toxics. We as citizens have a right to not have to worry about getting sick from pollution. Unfortunately, the world that we live does not always recognize our rights (especially those who live in communities of color or in low income neighborhoods) of living free of toxic emissions, and it has become an issue that people who live in the shadow of industry have had to fight for. Like in West Berkeley, neighbors who live in industrial zones are organizing and forming coalitions and alliances to take on polluters. For those of us who do not live in such areas, it is our responsibility to support such grassroots environmental efforts and mobilizations. After all, pollution is not just affecting those who live in the immediate fallout zones of industrial emissions. The reality is that no neighborhood is really that safe when it comes to toxics, and the issue of pollution has literally spread out of industrial fence-line communities in the inner city. Toxics affect all us, and to realize that and to know that action needs to be taken, is sound thought and positive mental health.
I remember it like yesterday. The hurt, the anger, the frustration, and confusion. And then something else. Embarrassment, maybe?
I looked across the table to see if my ears deceived me but was immediately assured that they had not by the deeply furrowed brow of my husband who was obviously experiencing very similar, if not the same, torturous emotions.
I asked the eighth grade History teacher to repeat himself, just one more time. I’m still not quite sure why.
"Maybe your son should just get his GED and forget about going to high school. I mean, high school is not for everybody." There were those words again. Those words that had rattled me to the core and shook loose indignation like I have never felt before. The only thing I felt more than indignation at that moment was my maternal instinct to protect my child. Had he heard?
Judging by the look on his face he had. With an expression I could not completely read I took in all of him. It was as if time stood still and allowed me a few brief moments to take in this entire scene. My mind drifted and conjured up pictures, flashes of scenes almost in the fashion of an '80s movie montage, I watched the first few years of his life pass by my eyes.
The exciting and very eventful birth, the intense month in the NICU after he was born 8 1/2 weeks premature, thumb sucking, potty training, talking before he could walk...
My baby boy was so cute and very concerned about his appearance (he would change his clothes if he got the slightest smudge). He was funny and an amazing learner with 'star' quality. I mean really, this kid was meant for the big screen. And even though you may not believe me, I really would say that even if he wasn’t my child.
I also remember how tiring it was running after him once I had my younger two children; a boy and a girl 16 months apart. During that time it seemed that I needed to get my oldest child in some sort of activity quick! He had an incredible amount of energy; jumping, running, climbing and oh the talking! He could talk longer and faster than anyone I had ever met. He had so many questions. When he wasn’t asking questions he had lots to say about many things; different unrelated subjects all at once it seemed. It seemed like his mouth, his mind, and in fact his entire body was run by some motor. A motor no one could figure out how to operate or shut off.
And here we were age 14, sitting across from yet another group of teachers saying what we had been hearing from teachers for the last several years, "Your son is very capable of doing the work, very intelligent and articulate, but unable to focus in class. He is often a distraction to others and exhibits very disruptive behavior." So disruptive in fact, that at least one teacher feels he shouldn’t even bother with high school.
But this was our son he was talking about. Not some troubled teen from a broken home, engaging in criminal activity. They were talking about our first born, our beloved, our Elijah.
Although not an 'A' (ok 'B' or 'C' student, for that matter), he still deserved to have the "typical" teenage/high school experience, right?
As that question lingered I looked at my son again, hardly recognizable as the fun loving meticulous child I had once known him to be. His clothes were disheveled; face flushed and eyes burning with anger. Or at least that's what I assumed until I looked closer. There was something else behind his eyes. A certain desperation that reached the very core of me as a mother and human being. A question. My son wanted to know why. Why didn't anyone understand? Why was he different? Why was it so hard for him to get us all to see things from his perspective?
When we got home late that afternoon my husband and I had a long talk with our son. I guess we should really call it a 'listen' instead of 'talk' because we did very little talking. My husband and I watched as our son struggled to stay in the moment and reasonably still. In normal fashion we reminded him to sit still and focus, and then it suddenly hit me. What if we were asking the wrong questions? So I stepped out on faith and I asked, "Son, can you sit still?" I watched in slack jawed amazement as my son's face lit up for the first in a long time as if to say, "now we’re getting somewhere" and he calmly replied, "No." Probing further I said, "I'm serious, answer me truthfully." My son looked me square in the eye and in the most inexplicable way communicated the importance of what he was about to say and replied, "I am very serious Mommy, sometimes I just can’t control myself, I need help."
In that defining moment my husband and I knew one thing was clear; we needed help.
After a referral to mental health from our pediatrician my son was diagnosed with ADHD.
Since then many months have passed and although new to the mental health world my son has welcomed the opportunity to grow through the intense trials he faced with strength and determination to reach his educational and athletic goals in spite of it all. With the spirit of his ancestral heritage of heroism, my son faces every day with courage, love, and laughter that brings "proud mama" tears to my eyes.
I look back at the fateful day of middle school and remember the hurt that has now been replaced by honor to have a son who has embraced his differences and somehow maintains a healthy balance between fitting in and celebrating the diversity he brings to every situation. Embarrassment and confusion are both gone.
Although there are still some days where we experience frustration and anger, they are mostly directed at injustice toward mental health consumers and families.
My son continues to inspire me and is a great demonstration of acceptance and unconditional love. Unconditional love for himself and others. His desire to learn about his diagnosis and use his strengths to overcome the various difficulties he faces due to symptoms of ADHD has taught me so much about my own struggles with mental health distress. He has in many ways ignited even more passion in me to do and support work that sees to the health of the whole person.
My son calls on everything in him to soar above the mountains in his path including discrimination, stigma, misinformation, and misunderstanding. In the process he has helped me to re-discover my own wings.
Indeed, Elijah has taught me soar!
I am enjoying our journey together. I know however, that there may come a day when I will cease to fly as high, and swiftly as his youth and vibrancy will allow him to. My prayer is that he will still be able to hear my whispers in the wind...
"Soar on son, soar on."