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Illness is “mental,” cure is holistic

During panel discussion, mental health experts home in on recovery

By Carrie Seidman
carrie.seidman@heraldtribune.com
March 20, 2017

When Francine Nowotny’s illness was at its zenith, she had the delusion that by eating or drinking anything, she would be allowing “the devil to go inside of me.” After two weeks of taking in no food or even water, she was so weak and dehydrated she was admitted to the hospital. Even then, she fought every attempt of the medical staff to force the placement of an IV line that might revive her.

“The delusions are so strong, they are reality,” said Nowotny, who was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder at 23. “I wasn’t fighting them (the staff). I was fighting for my life.”

In the end, it was a nurse with a calm, sweet voice who gently asked, “May I put this IV in your arm?” that broke the impasse.

“I heard goodness in her voice,” Nowotny recalled. “I really believe, how you treat us is what you will get back.”

Nowotny, who has a master’s degree in psychology and now serves as a peer counselor for the Sarasota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), spoke about her mental health journey as part of a panel discussion at Temple Emanu-El Sunday, jointly sponsored by the synagogue and NAMI Sarasota. “Mental Illness: Roads to Recovery,” also featured Dr. Matthew Edlund, a Sarasota psychiatrist; Wendy Abramson, the president of NAMI Sarasota and the mother of a daughter diagnosed with bipolar disorder; and moderator Diane McKay, the director of behavioral health at Lake Erie College of Medicine (LECOM).

Nowotny said achieving her own recovery took many small advances over a very long period of time and could occur only after she had accepted her illness and committed to getting well.

“No one can do this for you, no one can recover for you,” she said to an audience of about 120, many of them parents and family members looking to assist their own loved ones struggling with a mental health condition. “It has to start with you, and by doing what you can, little by little as you’re ready, by taking baby steps, recovery becomes possible.”

Edlund, a Sarasota psychiatrist who specializes in sleep disorders, said nearly 30 percent of the country’s population will be diagnosed at some point their lifetimes with depression, “so at what point do you stop calling these things abnormal?” Taking an approach to psychiatric illness that places the emphasis only on pharmacological treatment is misguided. What is called for is a more holistic approach, that focuses on overall health, he believes.

“The United States does health care; we don’t do health,” Edlund said. “Medication is a starting point. But you have to think about the physical, the mental, the spiritual and the social to get anywhere. It’s not all about medical treatment; to a large part, it’s about lifestyle.”

Numerous factors are important in recovery from a mental illness, Edlund said, including establishing regular patterns of sleep, activity and food intake, and building social connections and supports. Cognitive behavioral training that teaches thinking in terms of solutions rather than problems — “How do I get out of this?” rather than “How rotten is this?” — is another way of “treating your body as if it has to be trained, just like your brain,” he said. And a job, whether volunteer or paid, can also go a long way in helping regulate lifestyle choices and rebuild self-esteem.

“We want people to have regular sleep, exercise and food patterns, but one of the critical things that makes those happen are jobs,” he said. “When people have a purpose, their overall results are far, far better. In many ways, I find it is more important to overall improvement than drugs.”

From a parents’ perspective, of course, the immediate reaction to learning your child has a mental health issue is wanting to solve the problem and find a “cure.” Unfortunately, there is no such quick fix, said Abramson, who recounted her own harrowing journey with her daughter, who first developed unexplained rages at the age of 5 that eventually escalated into depression, mania, self-mutilation, panic attacks and self-destructive behaviors as a teenager.

After several years of halting progress and relapses, Abramson finally gave an ultimatum, threatening to cut off finances if her daughter did not go into a rehabilitation program, which became the first step in her recovery. Then she contacted NAMI, which she’d learned of through a book, and started working on her own recovery.

“I learned I can’t fix it,” Abramson said. “I learned how to create boundaries. I learned how not to overreact and how to listen and empathize better. I learned it wasn’t my fault. I learned to respect the time my daughter needed for her brain to heal. It empowered me and gave me the tools and strength I needed to help my daughter.”

Convinced that “NAMI saved my daughter’s life and my own,” Abramson two years ago became a catalyst for the revival of the Sarasota NAMI chapter, which had nearly gone out of existence, and now serves as its president.

Although there is no single answer or speedy remedy to recovering from a mental illness, all the panelists agreed there is plenty of reason for hope. Today Abramson’s daughter is a graduate student at Vanderbilt University. Nowotny works part time as a peer counselor and is a caregiver for her elderly mother.

“It takes a village to care for someone with a mental illness,” Abramson said.

But, Nowotny cautioned the parents in the audience, the first step has to come from the individual with the illness.

“It’s like that old adage, ‘You can take a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,’” she said. “What I’m hearing from you is that you want to force that horse to drink. I know it can be painful to watch, but all you can do is provide support. In the end, they will have to decide when they are ready.”

To see the original Herald-Tribune article, click here.

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