Tuesday, April 23, 2013
On April 17th, the National Alliance on Mental illness held their annual awards breakfast in downtown Cleveland. It was a day to honor individuals who have dedicated vital parts of their lives and careers to promote awareness to these misunderstood, but common disorders. As a past award recipient, I both respect and admire the work these generous individuals have done.
When the guests arrive they are greeted with a poster that described the "Multi-Cultural Outreach" that is advocated by this organization. Like the disorders themselves, the people in attendance were a cross-section of America. This advocacy unites people regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and social economic status. All have a common goal to bring awareness to the commonality and dangers of mental illness, and advocate behalf of those afflicted and their loved ones. With that in mind, it is sad to see virtually no media attention was given to honor not only the award winners and speakers; but everyone who tireless efforts contributed to improve the lives of the victims of these invisible disorders.
What is clear to many is that people who suffer from a mental illness face the daunting task of not only the condition, but the added burden of a disease that is associated with such a dehumanizing stigma. Additionally, the ones plagued tend to experience an immense deal of ignorance from seemingly intelligent individuals. Two good examples of this came from members of the Ohio Statehouse. A former Representative was candid when he told me that, for social service resources, the mentally ill are forced to the back of the bus for the increasingly scarce dollars. Another Former State Senator, was hypocritically blunt when he informed me "there are more important issues than bigotry!" It must be added, he could not think of one at that time.
This organization has a mission to confront ignorance, empower individuals to recover, and to recapture the life that everyone is entitled to live. Michael Baskin, the President of NAMI of Greater Cleveland, spoke about this empowerment and specifically, empathy for those in need. When diversity is talked about, he lets his, and NAMI's actions speak for themselves, and one particular speaker proved that.
Reaver Nelson gave an inspirational discussion of how mental health issues affect that LGBT community (Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender). It was an eye opening presentation as this group suffers depression, domestic abuse and chemical dependency at a rate significantly higher than the rest of society. She put a human side to these stigmatized members of this community and reminded us of the enormous amount of discrimination they face throughout their lives. As she spoke to the audience of about 230 attendees, there were no judgmental comments, just empathy and understanding. That is true diversity and inclusion, as once again, they are united in a common cause.
The award winners were; Haines Lanctot, Karen Jarr, Craig Fallon, Dr. Nora McNamara, Craig Sams, Dr. George Tesar and Sally Follet. They were all called up to be recognized without the benefit of television cameras, or the famous red carpet. All have done something unique that everyone should be proud of, and that is saving lives! Their generous contributions have helped restore dignity to people who have been punished for just getting sick. They were some of the many who stood up and said no, we will not tolerate people to die needlessly and without hope.
NAMI itself is rarely in the spotlight for the work that they accomplish. What the public does not realize is that this organization is run on a shoe string budget. The Greater Cleveland chapter which offers 32 support groups throughout Northeastern Ohio, accomplishes this with a budget of less than a half million a year. As anyone can tell, this is significantly less than what an average professional athlete earns in a year.
There are so many superlatives that can be used to describe this organization and all the people who contribute to helping others. Many sufferers of mental illness, me included, are grateful for what they do accomplish. If I had to pick out one achievement, it would be from personal experience, and that is simply be," they help make people feel human again!" The main reason they do accomplish this is that NAMI is a group of people that truly care and understand the roadblocks the unfortunate victims face.
Many of us discover this organization when we are at the bottom of the barrel of life. Like others, I was alone, my life in ruins when I first met this group of people just over ten years ago. Today, I have a job that I have received a promotion, plus a business, I am a writer, and have given over 500 speeches on this very subject. A major part of my and others success is finding groups of people like the ones honored who cared enough to reach out a helping hand. I can also feel free to express that many of us pay that help forward to assist others.
Sadly, there is some irony here. A few blocks from the Hilton Garden Center where the awards ceremony took place, serves as a reminder that many do not understand true greatness. It was there that a banner stood to honor a basketball player with the words, "We are Witness." All that this was showcasing was a rich narcissistic athlete whose only concern is what he can get for himself. At this meeting, we honored true greatness in ordinary people whose greatest reward is saving lives. Their work is a true witness to something special.
To all the award winners, thank you, and God Bless!
Thursday, April 4, 2013
Recently, a fourteen year old student at the Sheffield, Sheffield Lake school system ended his life by suicide, a death that few people understand. It is an ending that leaves many asking what could have been so detrimental to lead to such a tragic outcome; and of course others will scrutinize if it could have been prevented. Right now, everyone's heartfelt prayers should be directed towards his family and loved ones. This tragedy also brought back memories of my many adventures with this community, including suicide attempts, which provides me with insight as to what may have occurred with this young man.
There are a few facts of this case known, and what has been disclosed, point to some disturbing behavior from school officials. It appears that he was a young African American student, who had trouble fitting in. Besides his race, he was large for his age, 6 Ft 3 inches tall and 275 pounds, and had a speech impediment which may have placed him in an unfortunate spotlight. It has been reported that he was bullied and that his family had contacted the school for help, and that assistance may not have been properly provided. If those allegations are true, this lack of intervention is an unpardonable act of the school system! When contacted, Superintendent Will Folger informed me that these allegations are still being investigated.
One of the most crucial aspects of preventing suicide is being aware of situations that can inspire them. Students like this young man need to feel free to express any and all suicidal thoughts that they were having, and not to feel shame in seeking help. They want the belief that their symptoms and the causes, such as bullying are not dismissed, but taken seriously. Every young student should feel protected in schools and never ostracized in any fashion. With my personal and professional encounters with area leaders and the school system, I doubt seriously this open environment was ever provided, and I wonder just how badly they failed this young man.
Former President Harry Truman once said, "There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know!" With that as a backdrop, a review of the zeitgeist of the community leaders can offer a glimpse into what this young man and his family faced as a roadblock in his short life.
Over the years, I have done hundreds of programs on suicide prevention, and the dangers of depression, including a few in this school system. In fact, I once had a student from "Brookside High School" write me an inspiring note thanking me for speaking to her class. She was one of many who faced this issue with maturity far beyond her age, and the irony of what she said many years ago should ring loud and clear in this community! She wrote " I am proud that you’ve started a sort of crusade, if you will, instructing school administrators how to best deal with suicide. I know firsthand that sometimes a teacher or a guidance counselor may not be best quipped to handle such situations." Now many years later, who could have guessed just how accurate she was in being critical of the school administrators lack of understanding of this silent epidemic.
Along those lines, in dealing with this current death, evidence indicates that this school system did not clearly intervene with this young man's problems. In fact, the Superintendent seemed to indicate conflicting statements about the allegations of bullying. At best, what is being said is highly suspect, but I am confident they will soon hide behind a shield of confidentially, rather than acknowledge any systemic failures. This position of containment could mean that few significant changes will occur as the result of this tragedy.
I find this lack of understanding to be a cultural issue in that area. About five years ago Sheffield Village hired me to do a program to their police officers to help them understand people in crisis and to prevent future tragedies and violent police encounters. Most importantly, I use these talks to create awareness to discriminatory practices against those deemed different. Though my programs center on mental illness, a good example of someone being stigmatized as being different could be young African American guy who was being bullied. In time we will know if that indeed is what happened.
If anyone believes that this type of work was appreciated there, guess again. The thanks I received from both the city and the schools was to be demonized with hateful comments and to have my volunteer work dragged through the mud. Their behavior is not surprising as my short time in the community did make a indelible imprint on my life, and may help explain what contributed to this current tragedy. I have vivid memories of the emotional police brutality from this department, and how it is accepted within this Village. In talks to many police groups, I routinely hold them as an example of a rogue department that is beyond repair.
However, what more can anyone expect from a group whose former Mayor Darlene Ondercin's claim to fame was a YouTube video titled, "Sheffield Village Mayor gone wild in Stretch pants”. Not to be outdone, the current Mayor John Hunter, will continuously cloak himself with religion, and phony claims of transparency all the time using discriminatory practices against those who do not originate from his gene pool of arrogance. He epitomizes the verse from a song, "you can hate your neighbor, but don't forget to say grace!" These two do have one thing in common as neither has the intestinal fortitude to face problems; rather they claim they created a utopian society, and attempt to segregate those who do not fit in their self-created moral universe.
To better illustrate their blatant ignorance, I turn to a suicide that occurred in the Village several years ago. I was investigating possible police misconduct which may have been a contributory factor. Chris Cook, the prosecutor informed me that under no conditions will anyone in the Village discus this death with me. This highly questionable action also points to possible misconduct, but they prefer to hide the information from public knowledge. However, I have discovered that none of the city officials have the emotional maturity or intelligence to even comprehend issues this complex, including Mr. Cook. Most, if not all, were exposed as nothing more than reprobates who stand behind a shield of secrecy and bigotry.
Additionally, Mr. Cook, whom last year lost a bid for a judgeship, has, in the past displayed reckless behavior. Besides his silence on the suicide investigation, he is notorious for allowing a woman with multiple DUI's to have charges dismissed with a commitment to not file a lawsuit against the village for, not surprisingly, a police brutality claim. This stemmed from an officer tasering a handcuffed woman in the back while in police custody. Predictably, no charges were filed against that officer and the woman was once again arrested a short time later for drunk driving.
It is essential that I mention that I have met several outstanding teachers from this system, and one particularly stood out as exemplary. They are not the ones whose actions are in doubt, and I am confident they would have taken steps to help prevent this tragedy.
The same can be said about a former police officer from the Village, Mark Palmer. I found him to be an excellent example of a law enforcment officer, who spent time as a school resource officer. Instead of the city and Mayor Hunter ingratiating themselves to his work, the Mayor spent considerable effort attempting to lay him off and blame budget cuts. Sadly, Mr. Palmer left and is now a member an outstanding police department in Bay Village.
Many of these before mentioned individuals will not address this article on its substance, but will begin personal attacks directed at me. My goals have always been the same. Bring awareness to mental illness, suicide and do what can be done to prevent them. I do not have all the answers, and it is accepted that no one does. The offers for help and education have always been only a phone call away, but leaders of this group must first put their prejudices down and embrace the term accountability, not containment! Additionally, it is said that it takes a village to raise a family, but it also takes village idiots to destroy them!
There will be allegations that this article is rough and unfair to the community and school leaders. I will answer that by saying, my grandfather was an old Russian immigrant who worked the coal mines around Madera, Pa while he and my grandmother raised 11 children. This was long before modern technology. When I was a child, he once told me that when the jackass they would use to haul coal would refuse to move, no one would whisper sweet nothings in its ear. What would happen is that they would beat the animal across the head with a 2x4. I am using a metaphorical chunk of wood, but the intended targets, city and school officials are similar to the animals my grandfather described! In simple terms, heed the words of the late actor John Wayne; "Life is hard, and it's even harder when you are stupid!"
I have faced a vast amount of bias in that community strictly because I was deemed unworthy because of a mental illness. As of now, I have no evidence to suggest that racism fueled this tragic outcome. However, I have discovered in my 10 plus years of advocacy, that if someone is prejudice against someone for one reason, it is an easy deduction to believe that it is in their resolve to exclude people for being different in any number of ways, race and disease included!
In closing, I ask everyone to add an extra prayer to the family of this young man. Use him as a goal to become aware of the motivating factors that can affect the lives of anyone's children, as suicide is the third leading cause of death in their age brackets. Demand that schools and city leaders take preventative measures to protect the students that we entrust to them. Never settle for anything less, or history will continue to repeat itself.