A week ago Monday, on Sep. 16, Aaron Alexis entered the Navy Yard in Washington D.C., started shooting and killed twelve people. The 34-year-old Navy veteran had showed signs of having schizophrenia, like hearing voices, but no one had picked up on the red flags and gotten him into treatment.
Five days later, on Saturday, Sep. 21, another 34-year-old man named Jeff Shapiro, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia 17 years ago, walked into the Forest Park Library and gave a moving testimony regarding how timely diagnosis and treatment can literally save a person’s life.
Jeff was part of a five person team from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, NAMI, presenting a two hour in-service training for teachers and parents which focused on helping families and school professionals understand the early warning signs of mental illnesses in children and adolescents and how best to intervene so that youth with mental health treatment needs are linked with services. Two people, a teacher from Riverside and a parent from Forest Park, attended the training.
Unlike the Navy Yard gunman, Jeff had a mom who recognized that something was wrong with her son who was 17 at the time of his diagnosis. “Jeff was an honor student at OPRF,” Leah Shapiro of Forest Park recalled, “and all of a sudden my son turned into a person I didn’t know.” Shapiro has worked as an advocate for the mentally ill for years since the challenges began with her son.
“Schizophrenia is really a separation from reality,” Jeff explained. “The hallucinations were pretty bad. I was hearing voices that were like transmitted by a radio signal. Schizophrenia, which rarely occurs in people under seventeen, can be very confusing. You don’t know what’s on. When you are experiencing them it’s distracting, because you’re constantly trying to fight them and get rid of them.”
Jeff and his mother agreed that both people beginning to have symptoms of a mental illness and their family members often are hesitant to acknowledge what is happening, because they feel embarrassed or because they are in denial. In Jeff’s case, Leah brought him to doctors who were able to accurately diagnose the disorder and get him the appropriate treatment.
Jeff emphasized the importance of recognizing the signs of mental illness and getting competent help as early as possible. “That needs to happen when that initial onset happens,” he said. “Hopefully you can prevent a psychotic break right where it starts. It’s communication, too. It’s important to tell someone about it, because holding it inside is not going to help you. A big part of our [NAMI’s] peer to peer sessions is talking about our hallucinations and symptoms.”
Another important part of the NAMI message is that although mental illness cannot be cured, it can be managed. Seventeen years after his diagnosis Jeff works as a recovery specialist with the Thrive Counseling Center at 120 S. Marion St. in Oak Park. “Once medication took hold,” he said, “I was able to enter a new phase of recovery, taking responsibility for my actions.”
Kevin Ackerman began taking medication for his bi-polar disorder when he was only 9 years old. His grandmother, Martha who was raising him, saw red flags in his behavior when he was 3. Martha recalled, “He was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I could actually see his face change, the rage in his eyes. We used to have to literally pin him down to keep him from hurting us physically. At that point I didn’t understand bi-polar disorder, but I knew that this was not the Kevin that I knew. Kevin felt terribly guilty, because he couldn’t control himself.”
Kevin explained, “I never wanted to hurt anyone in my life. I had no control over attacking people I love. As a kid living with this disorder, it’s so painful at times. When I turned 17 and got my mania, it’s like the best thing on earth to you until you realize how much it sucks, because when it’s done with you’re just drained.”
The NAMI speakers had credibility, because all either had a mental illness and were in recovery or were family members of someone with a mental disorder. Kevin spoke from his own life experience when he declared, “If you know someone who has what I have it’s really important for them to get help, because they don’t want to do what they’re doing. I got help when I was six from a therapist when I was nine I got medication. Since I got medication it’s not magic, but it works really well. I can now have control over it instead of it having control over me.”
Referring to the way he described himself as having a disorder, Kevin put into words how talking with others, especially in peer to peer groups, is important in recovery along with medication. Through a lot of hard work, he was able to get to the point where he could say, “I’m not this disorder. I’m Kevin Ackerman. I have this disorder, but I’m not going to be my disorder.”
The Surgeon General of the United States reported that 12 percent of American children under the age of 18 live with a diagnosable mental illness. NAMI is the nation’s largest grassroots mental health organization dedicated to building better lives for the millions of Americans affected by mental illness. NAMI advocates for access to services, treatment, supports and research and is steadfast in its commitment to raise awareness and build a community for hope for all of those in need.