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.
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.
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.