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BRAINSTORM: Mental Illness in One American Home - Shivaun Palmer

Mental Health issues in the workplace are becoming more prevalent

due to enormous pressures people are feeling in their personal and professional

lives. Those who suffer from the pain of systemic racism, sexism, ageism and other

forms of discrimination are particularly vulnerable. The Covid-19 Pandemic has

brought many issues to light, particularly the fragile mental health of our nation.

Over the next few months, DEI Consultants Co-founder and Mental Health

contributor Shivaun Palmer will be sharing stories of people living with mental

illnesses, interviews with experts in the field, employers who are at the forefront of

creating humane and healthy work environments and current and emerging

treatments in the field of mental health that give hope to those with mental health

issues or loved ones who suffer.

For her first blog, Palmer will share a story about her own family’s journey through

mental illness.


Mental Illness in One American Home

In 1975, at the age of fifteen, my oldest brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia, a serious mental illness that is characterized by a range of problems that affect thinking, behavior and emotions. The news changed the course of his life as well as the rest of our family, and fueled a passion in me to become an advocate for people suffering with various mental health issues. My handsome, funny, kind, athletic brother was overcome by an unforgiving disease of the brain that caused him to become paranoid,struggle to put sentences together, experience debilitating depression and frightening auditory hallucinations. His unstable behavior impacted my parents, my two younger siblings and me. My mother, a Bellevue- educated psychiatric nurse and my dad made the gut-wrenching decision to send their oldest son away for treatment. He was hospitalized at a psychiatric facility in Dallas for close to eighteen months. This was in the mid-1970s where treatment and facilities for those with mental illnesses were sub-par to put it mildly. I would argue that we have not come much further in 45 years.

My parents and I were able to visit my brother at the hospital every three months, leaving my younger sister and brother in the care of a trusted neighbor. Entering the 1950-era building was like entering a high security prison. After checking in at the front desk to receive our visitor badges, we were escorted into a small, dark, unwelcoming side room to wait to see Paul’s doctor. As he entered the room, the short, stocky, be-speckled man with a furrowed brown and stern face sat down across the table from my

parents and me. He placed a beat up looking patient chart held together with rubber bands in front of us. While only sixteen, I was savvy enough to know that this guy was not going to be warm and fuzzy. My instinct was correct. Over the course of our nearly 90 minute meeting, this man who seemed to have little or no empathy went over my brother’s treatment plan. Itincluded a laundry list of heavy, first generation anti-psychotic medications that had terrible side effects including significant weight gain. When Paul was finally discharged he was 80 pounds heavier than when he went in. Other effects of these drugs included uncontrollable tremors, dry mouth, stiffness and sleepiness.

Toward the end of the session, the doctor threw out an outrageous hypothesis that according to the “most recent data” the reason many kids were suffering from mental health issues was because of their poor relationships with their mothers. In essence, my mother was responsible for her sons’ schizophrenia. What? Even at sixteen, I knew that sounded ridiculous. As a highly trained psychiatric nurse, my mother knew that this theory could not be substantiated with any real data, but as a mother, and at

that very moment, her professional objectivity and years of education flew out the window. Muhammad Ali might as well of hit her square on the chin. I saw the look of pain in her face. She was devastated. I wanted to cold-cock that shrink. I am sure I didn’t know what cold-cock meant, but by God, that is what I felt like doing. As we wrapped up our meeting, we were able to visit with my brother for a few minutes in a sitting area just outside his room. His slow gait, tremendous weight gain and lethargic manner were nothing like the brother I had known prior to this horrible disease. We knew this was

going to be a marathon, not a sprint. But as a family, we sure as hell were not going to give up on our loved one. As we hugged and kissed him goodbye, we headed down the hallway to the front desk and turned in our visitor badges. Hot, angry tears rolled down my cheeks as we headed across the lawn to the parking lot. As I got into my parents’ car, I began to sob uncontrollably.

Once he was discharged, the road to recovery was long, painful and had many twists and turns, but we never gave up. Today, Paul lives independently, is clean and sober, and with the support of family and friends is living proof that a combination of a healthy diet, regular exercise, prayer, friendship, being treated with dignity and respect and having a purpose in life are some of the key factors in recovering from or improving significantly from mental illness.

In the coming weeks I will share stories from a six-month research project I titled Mental Illness in America that took me across the country interviewing men and women suffering from various mental health issues; from CEO’s to frontline employees, leading researchers in the mental health field, members of Congress championing parity for

mental health coverage with the insurance industry and distressed family members trying to obtain the right treatments and services for their loved ones. “You are not your illness. You have an individual story to tell. You have a name, a history, and a personality. Staying yourself is part of the battle.” Julian Seifter, MD; Associate Professor, Medicine, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard Medical School.

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