In contemporary culture, speaking openly about mental illness can be difficult, if it is done at all.
Tony Lowe, who grew up in northern Seneca County, discussed some of those difficulties as he addressed participants at the Ray of Hope Award and Benefit Dinner. Sponsored by the Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness, the event took place Sunday night at the Community Civic Center in Tiffin, with about 200 people attending.
Now a resident of California, Lowe has spoken to more than 50,000 young people through the Challenge Day program (www.challengeday.org), which encourages youth and adults to have real conversations about difficult topics. He also has served as a consultant for Easter Seals and has directed a training program for the California Autism Foundation. He has appeared on the television series, "If You Really Knew Me," on MTV.
PHOTO BY DON GROFF
Guest speaker Tony Lowe requests interaction from listeners during a presentation.
Living with mental illness in oneself or in a loved one can generate many disturbing emotions, he said.
"In our day-to-day, we don't talk about this stuff ... we were taught not to talk about our feelings," Lowe said.
When we greet one another with "How are you?" the usual answer is "fine," even when we are not "fine," he said.
Awardees point out benefits of CIT
Prior to presenting the Ray of Hope Awards, Josie Setzler, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness for Seneca, Sandusky and Wyandot counties, offered remarks on crisis intervention training.
"I want you to understand what a collaborative effort CIT is in our community. It began in Seneca Sandusky and Wyandot counties in 2006 and has trained 103 officers," Setzler said.
She recognized the evening's honorees.
Sgt. Patrick Del Turco of the Tiffin Police Department is a graduate of Calvert High School and holds an associate's degree in law enforcement from Tiffin University. He was honored for his work on the department's crisis negotiation team.
Now commander of the team, he encourages other officers to take CIT training.
"The main reason we do CIT is that it works for everyone involved. CIT works for police officers. It reduces arrests for persons with mental illness and gets them into treatment rather than in jail," Del Turco said. "It reduces officer prejudice toward mental illness. It gives officers a sense of empathy when they're dealing with someone in crisis."
In addition, the training has resulted in fewer injuries, fewer incarcerations and less time spent on crisis calls, Del Turco said.
David Olds, chief of the Upper Sandusky Police Department, grew up in Sandusky and graduated from Perkins High School. He earned an undergraduate degree from John Carroll University and a master's degree from Tiffin University.
When he became chief in 2009, the prosecutor suggested officers take training in suicide prevention. Olds said he sent one officer to "test the waters" and decide whether the program had value for them. The officer came back with high marks for the training. When CIT was offered, Olds took the class side-by-side with some of his officers. Then he joined the CIT planning committee.
"During that time I realized that CIT has many, many benefits that I don't have enough time to talk about," Olds said. "Not only to mitigate liability, but also so that the officer, consumer and family members all remain safe."
To learn more about CIT or NAMI, visit www.namissw.org or call (888) 582-8889.
We typically engage in superficial conversations to mask the issues that may be upsetting us, he said; other times, humans try play up their own misfortunes to discredit those another person may be experiencing.
Children are more open with their feelings, sometimes to the embarrassment of adults, he said.
Lowe said a tantrum can erupt when Mom won't buy the breakfast cereal Junior wants, but he gets over it. At an early age, parents and teachers inform children certain responses are not appropriate. The lessons may involve "the look," counting, "when I was your age" remarks, timeouts and threats. Adults are conditioned to stuff most of their emotions, good or bad, with phrases such as, "Man up," "Don't be a drama queen" or "Calm down."
"What happens to all those feelings? ... Where does that energy go?" Lowe said.
His theory is that everyone has an "emotional balloon" for storing feelings that cannot be expressed. The trouble is, balloons start to "leak." Lowe said he turned to alcohol and drugs for relief.
When he passed out in the school restroom, one of the administrators came in to make him return to class without offering to get him help. Lowe also recalled the day his health teacher "covered" mental illness in class. It was something Lowe was anxious to learn more about because it was so seldom discussed.
"It's somehow safer to look at it in a book than it is in your life," Lowe said. "But that lesson was like a comedy routine."
The teacher, who had been supportive of students in other capacities, did not know enough about the topic to teach it without laughing, he said. The class also laughed. Lowe said he tried respectfully to question the content of the lesson, but the instructor was insulted anyone would find fault with his methods. The teacher was trying to follow the curriculum but didn't really want to talk about the subject beyond the textbook definitions.
Lowe said he sat down and never tried to bring it up again in the classroom.
At that point, Lowe asked his audience for actions people may take to relieve the pressure in the emotional balloon. Their responses included cutting, screaming, violence, eating disorders, isolation, promiscuity, risk-taking, overworking and excessive shopping.
When parents complain about the troubles their children have caused, Lowe tries to emphasize there is a reason.
"There's no such thing as a bad kid. ... What there is is a whole lot of people out there in a whole lot of pain," Lowe said.
Next he asked for positive outlets for emotional stress. The suggestions included music, art, dancing, seeking natural surroundings, exercise, prayer and talking with other people.
Lowe said laughing and crying are especially effective ways for the body to release pent-up emotions.
"People are like icebergs. We only see about 10 percent. ... beneath the water line is this huge mass of ice," Lowe said.
People try to conceal their fears, doubts, guilt, anger, sorrows, loneliness and insecurities because our culture equates these with weakness. Lowe said when he reached a really low point in his life, support from a good friend helped him realize he wanted to live. That support helped him to overcome his addictions and make an effort to achieve emotional freedom for himself.
Now, he is trying to help others.
"I look around and there's a lot of things in this world I want to see different right now, and we can't do it without everybody onboard," Lowe said.
He pointed to his mom, Karen Michael of Green Springs, who made chose to speak out and educate others about mental illness through volunteering with the local chapter of NAMI.
Lowe also praised the two police officers receiving the Ray of Hope awards for their work in the Crisis Intervention Team training. He said their efforts are making communities safer and getting help for those who need it.
Finally, Lowe challenged those present to offer love and support to friends and loved ones struggling with mental illness.
"Put your hand up if you have the courage to make sure that somebody in your life isn't going to go through what they're going through alone ... you're going to pull them back in and hold onto them," Lowe said.