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Robert David Jaffee

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Coverage of Mental Illness Provides Good Cheer

Posted: 08/09/2011 6:27 pm

The Tea Party wreaked havoc with the debt ceiling negotiations, President Obama and the Democrats caved in, the S&P downgraded the U.S. credit rating and the stock market, which had already been tanking, plummeted.

As Sholem Aleichem, the Yiddish sage, once wrote, "Now on to more cheerful things. Tell me, what news is there of the cholera in Odessa?" And yet, for a mental-health journalist there have been some legitimately cheerful stories to report.

Let's start with the second part of The New York Times' series, "Lives Restored: Managing Mental Illness." In this second installment, the Times profiled Joe Holt, whose schizophrenia has not prevented him from being a successful computer entrepreneur, marriage counselor, father and husband.

Nor is Holt, who has learned how to tame or subdue the voices that still plague him, a violent man, though he was once a threat to himself. The piece opens with him holding a gun to his head just after losing the first good job he had ever had. He hears a voice ordering him to shoot himself. It is then that his wife, Patsy, knocks on the door, hugs him and poses the possibility that while he has just had a horrendous day, tomorrow may be the day that he gets what he wants.

She says all this while Holt still cradles the gun. She leaves the room, and thankfully, he puts the gun aside.

Reporter Benedict Carey, the author of the piece, then notes that people with severe mental illness like Joe Holt are succeeding on the journey to recovery because they are developing "core skills from the ground up, through trial and repeated error."

As much as Joe Holt has been aided by core skills, it is clear that he has been aided even more by the love and wisdom of his wife, Patsy. The love and wisdom of my own wife, Barbara, have proven essential in my own recovery from a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

I have been writing about my battles with severe mental illness for many years now, going back to April of 2005, when I penned a front-page op-ed in what was then known as the Sunday Opinion section of the L.A. Times. Titled "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket," that piece won 1st place at the L.A. Press Club Awards the following year. In it, I described my harrowing trek across Los Angeles in 1999 when I thought I would be assassinated and blamed for a series of murders.

During my most psychotic moment, almost an out-of-body experience, I heard music -- a mellifluous strain originating from the clouds, so it seemed. I thought the music was welcoming me to heaven, that I was destined to kill myself.

But I was more Hamlet than Caliban, who hears a thousand twangling instruments on a magical island. Like Hamlet, who does not know whether or not the ghost of his father is real and whether or not it may tempt him to jump off a parapet, I considered jumping in front of a car on Venice Boulevard. But also like Hamlet, I had an instinct for survival, some level of insight that Joe Holt too has acquired over the years. Somewhere, deep inside of me, I wanted to live.

I am delighted that many people are speaking openly about their mental illness, whether it is NBA guard/forward Ron Artest, who helped lead the Lakers to a championship despite his battles with anger management, or pro football player Brandon Marshall, who recently revealed that he has borderline personality disorder.

But it is not only now that this has occurred, so I have to quibble a little bit with Carey's point that, "Now more and more of them are risking exposure to tell their stories publicly." I would like to think that my articles beginning in 2005 have helped create a climate for others to come forward.

I was fortunate in that I worked as a copy editor/proofreader at L.A. Weekly, which fostered an atmosphere of tolerance and acceptance. I started risking exposure 10 years ago, in 2001, when I told Laurie Ochoa, then the editor-in-chief of the paper, about my psychotic breaks in 1997 and 1999. It said a lot about the culture at L.A. Weekly, and about Ochoa herself, that she did not fire me. Although she was not able to place a prospective article at the time, she showed empathy in listening to my story.

Two years later, I contacted Sue Horton, a previous editor-in-chief of the Weekly, who was overseeing the op-ed section of the L.A. Times, as she still does. She also listened with empathy and accepted my piece in 2003, but it was deemed an "evergreen," a piece that could be used at any time because it had no news peg. Ultimately, it was published in the L.A. Times in 2005 by Bob Sipchen, who had co-written with Alex Raksin a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of editorials a few years earlier on mental-health policy.

The New York Times reporter Benedict Carey has done a wonderful job in writing about Joe Holt, just as he did in June when he profiled Dr. Marsha Linehan in the first installment in "Lives Restored." I appreciate his compassion and his investigative skills.

In a year that has brought us not only a stock-market plunge and economic crisis but also Jared Loughner, Anders Breivik and Levi Aron, three men who belong in prison, not a psychiatric ward, it is to Carey's credit that he is writing about how those with severe mental illness can lead fruitful lives without violence. I prefer reading and writing these stories to watching the stock ticker. If that makes me a romantic or even delusional, so be it. It is better than confronting reality every moment of the day.

 
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