November 18, 2013

The ‘voices’ behind the ‘stigma’

Highland Rivers celebrates ‘recovery’ for locals with mental illness

By Christopher Smith

Editor’s note: At the request of Highland Rivers Health staff, the last names of patients are left out of this story.


For a long time, the image of a little girl covered in blood haunted Casey, she said. Then she began hearing voices no one else could hear.

“I knew it couldn’t be real,” she said. “I was hearing voices no one could hear. They would mock me and demand me to kill myself. I would scream for no reason. At times, I would talk to the voices and began to plan to end my life. I felt caged and that someone far away had the key.”

Speaking Friday morning to some of her peers and to several mental health professionals is proof that she has gotten control over her mental illness, Casey said, adding that she doesn’t want to kill herself anymore because the voices have lost their power.

“It’s a part of me,” she said of her illness. “Not who I am.”

Casey was one of several patients from Highland Rivers Health, a mental health facility on Shugart Road, who publicly shared their personal struggles with mental disorders. By being able to speak openly about their illnesses, several patients, former and current, received diplomas as part of a “graduation,” said Natalie Davis, a service director with the facility.

Davis said the event, held at the Dalton Parks and Recreation facility off Glenwood Avenue, was intended to “end the stigma” related to people with mental illness.

Casey said before she got help, having a mental disorder left her with “shame and fear.” Those feelings were only fueled by a history of family violence, she said.

“My grandfather had started sexually abusing me at the age of 3,” she said. “He continued until I was 7, just as he had done with my mother. ... Finally, it came out and the court decided to make him serve time. But that year, on Thanksgiving day, the day before he was supposed to appear before court, he took himself off dialysis, which led to his death a few hours later.”

His death left Casey feeling like “he got away with it — twice,” she said.

Then, her family — a single mother, a sister and two brothers — fell apart. Casey said she became “a rag doll” tossed between family members, going in and out of foster care. As a result, Casey began to date men who would “sexually and physically abuse” her when she became an adult, she said.

“Hopeless,” she turned to drugs, alcohol and “random sex” with strangers to “at least, for a minute, take the pain and embarrassment of my life away,” she said. But it wasn’t enough, and she began to wake up in hospitals “after several suicide attempts.”

“I had lost everything, including myself,” she said.

Several people might never have thought that about Casey Friday morning as she hugged others and smiled brightly, an outgoing adult.

“I survived,” she said. “That’s because of peer group.”

The Whitfield Peer Support Program takes Highland Rivers patients through group therapy, trying to get them to the point of “professionally sharing their life experiences with the community” as a means of “recovery,” Davis said.

Casey said Highland Rivers was “the only place I knew that could help me.”

“They were so friendly and welcoming and they didn’t judge me,” she said. “I was told there was possibility that my life could change and that I needed to be stable. I had a reason to smile again.”

Now Casey is a group leader, helping others with similar backgrounds. Amy, one of Casey’s peer group members, also spoke about struggling with schizophrenia.

“The doctors and staff have made me feel so strong and full of hope,” she said between tears. “Thank you. I can say now that I’ve found love and support. I have self-confidence now. My thoughts don’t feel cloudy and cautious anymore.”

Amy said being in a group that allows the mentally ill to have “voices” has given her “so much courage” to “try and find a way to be an independent person again.”

She, too, is hopeful for her future, she said.