The reality of mental illness

Guest speakers share their experiences with mental illness for Mental Illness Awareness Week. (Photo by Nicole Jain/The Daily Campus)

National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) hosted an intimate lecture Tuesday night to introduce students to the real stories of people who have struggled with mental illness. NAMI combined the “In Your Own Voice” film, which takes viewers through the lives of people from the start of their mental illness, through the diagnosis and to the state of recovery in which they currently reside, with two speakers—Tim Wagner and Ken Fredette—sharing their stories. This event showed that mental illness is one of the most common diseases in America and doesn’t deserve any sort of stigma.

The film paired up its participants and had them talk to each other about their mental illnesses based on a series of questions such as how they coped or how they recovered. After a set of these questions, the NAMI presenters would pause the film, to allow Fredette and Wagner to speak.

Wagner began his story when he was a student at Harvard starting to experience hallucinations. He said that these hallucinations varied depending on what he was thinking about. When he was worried about the past he experienced a bright flash, when he worried about the present he experienced a black spot and when he worried about the future he experienced a sort of blue hallucination. Voices in his head began to be accompany these hallucinations, telling him not to sleep. After about a year he hospitalized himself for four weeks. It wasn’t until after his hospital stay that anyone even told him he had schizophrenia.

Fredette began his story at age five when he became increasingly afraid of germs. In college, he never told anyone what he was going through and never sought help. By the time he reached his 20s, he spent most days on his couch, too paralyzed by his OCD and depression to go outside and do simple chores.

The participants in the film talked about how they coped with their illnesses before they were diagnosed. Some turned to drugs or alcohol and ended up in jail after committing petty crimes for supply money. Others were hardly able to do anything in their lives. One said the day he was diagnosed with a mental health condition was the best day of his life because he could finally get real help. All of them agreed that therapists, support systems and medication were very helpful. Beyond these, they found solace through religion, family, exercise, routine, sleep, meditation and simply keeping themselves in the present.

Wagner said he hated his first psychiatrist, but absolutely loved his second one, and is still with him after 43 years.

“Try the therapist, if it doesn’t work out, go get another one,” Wagner said. His second psychiatrist, “didn’t pull any punches, he was down to earth, he was what I needed.”

Wagner even said he still takes the medicine this second psychiatrist gave. Talking to his psychiatrist and reading and writing about mental illness gave him the ability to live a full life. He said he is proud he was able to have a successful career as an engineer, be married for 50 years, have two great kids and two great-grandkids and only had to stay in the hospital the one time.

Elyssa Alber, a fifth-semester physiology and neurobiology major, thought Fredette’s story was incredibly inspirational.

“I thought that how he was only in the hospital once and he was able to persevere and continue surviving the illness [was very inspirational],” Alber said.

Fredette said getting what he’s thinking or feeling out into the world makes him snap out of whatever spiral he feels himself being sucked down into. Between this and his medication, he is finally able to live the life he wants. He has been married for two years now, has a nephew he loves and is finally enjoying life.

“I love just making dinner for my wife,” Fredette said. “I wouldn’t be in that spot if I hadn’t taken those steps and had those resources available.”

Both Fredette and Wagner, as well as the many people in the film, helped to show the audience that mental illness isn’t so uncommon. It is a very serious disease that needs to be treated with the same compassion as any life-threatening illness, and certainly without stigma.

“I found that it was interesting how everyone that may have a problem or an is very different, no one’s really the same,” Nicolette Naya, a third-semester engineering major, said. “Everyone has their own story and they cope with their own way of recovery in their own ways.”


Rebecca Maher is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.maher@uconn.edu.