December 15, 2005

Advocacy for Mentally Ill - Personal Story

Another good story I'd like to point people towards - like an earlier story this week - from the Amherst College Alumni magazine. Following is an excerpt:

Music, Stigma and Carrying a Voice
By Robert Simpson '69, chief operating officer of Sisters of Providence Health System Behavioral HealthCare

When does the mind truly become conscious about what it is we really are here on this earth to do? I remember as a student thinking with envy that you, my colleagues, had it all figured out upon graduation: off to law school, medical school and business school to become lawyers, doctors or corporate executives. ...

Through a confluence of events, I ended up working in a psychiatric hospital, thinking that I was doing it to make money to go to graduate school at Johns Hopkins, where I had been accepted into the School of International Relations. But I was hooked: I enjoy taking care of people who have no voice, like the mentally ill in our society. Of all the illnesses that we treat in medicine, mental illness is the most stigmatized. ...

My favorite aunt taught in the town’s one-room schoolhouse, played the organ at church and taught me to play the piano, beginning when I was 5 years old. She was a remarkable woman: pretty, red-haired, proud, kind and generous. To me, she was the most special person in the world.

When I was 7 she was hospitalized in a mental hospital for depression. I was distraught—no one would talk about it. She herself was acutely embarrassed by her illness, though she shouldn’t have been. I refused to go to school until I could see her. I remember being confused by her behavior; it did not seem like her to me, and no one could or would explain it to me. I just wanted her back, to go on as we had been living: crackers-and-cream-cheese snacks after school, baseball with the nuns and piano lessons. ...

I moved over to Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, where I am the chief operating officer.

I took the position not necessarily because I am a Catholic, but because it fit my early history, my memories of my aunt and my commitment to her. When she died, she gave me a doll with a note pinned to it: “Robbie, now that you are in the business, please find a special place for people like me.” She also gave me her grand piano, which I have moved with me from Boston to Utah to Amherst, and now to Providence. My aunt’s piano and I have recently been on a television news special about mental illness. When I welcome new employees to the hospital I end the welcome by telling them about my aunt, about how they can make a difference in the lives of patients by helping them find their voice. Then I play the piano—a jazzy piece about the pace of work and Clair de Lune, about the need to work together as the players in an orchestra must do.

In Massachusetts, only 20 percent of the children needing treatment for mental illness receive it. It’s not right. My aunt would be ashamed, but not necessarily surprised.

Read the full story here: Music, Stigma and Carrying a Voice


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