“I was captain of the track team and ranked eighth internationally. I was on the honor roll. I was a member of the school orchestra, drum corps, and playing in a rock band. I had a girlfriend and many close friends. I was voted ‘Ideal Classicalite’ (an award presented to one student from each graduating class who demonstrates superior academic, athletic, musical, and social skills) by more than 200 of my peers at Classical High School in Providence, Rhode Island. I had it all, and then I had my first breakdown.”
More than 20 years later, it still is traumatizing for Jonathan (Jon) to talk about his mental illness. “It all began the summer after I graduated from high school after just one sleepless night. I became confused, delusional, and paranoid. I told the police, the FBI, and the Secret Service that I was being stalked. I was out of control,” recalls Jon. No longer able to deal with the effects of sexual abuse from his childhood, Jon spent the next four months at Bradley Hospital in East Providence, Rhode Island, where he was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder which, in his case, presented as a combination of schizophrenia and manic depression.
The next five years were turbulent for Jon. He was in and out of the hospital five times and stopped taking his medication because he could not accept the side effects. “I gained over 120 pounds from the medication,” notes Jon. “I hated the way I looked. I lost all my energy and slept a lot. I was facing jail time for vandalizing a car; my friends deserted me; and I felt judged by my mental illness. I was at the lowest point in my life.”
Jon walked a hospital corridor as a patient for the last time in 1994, the same year he began treatment at The Providence Center, a community behavioral health center in Rhode Island. At The Providence Center's Independent Living Program, Jon received on-site intensive social and therapeutic services. With the help of his treatment team (a psychiatrist, nurse, case manager, counselor from The Providence Center's Assertive Community Treatment team, and an employment specialist from the Employment and Education Services division), Jon developed a long-term treatment plan and set realistic goals for his future. He participated in group therapy and worked hard on his recovery. He enrolled in Rhode Island College and started attending classes while working various part-time jobs. Slowly, over time, he started to get his life back.
Jon felt safe and supported at The Providence Center and began to believe there was hope for the future. His hope became a reality when he received his bachelor's degree in 1999. Since then, Jon has spent much of his time in an advocacy role. He currently works as a peer advocate at the Alive Program in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, where he supports people with mental illness in crisis, trains consumers to be advocates, and represents Alive at board and committee meetings throughout Rhode Island. He is a board member and former chairperson for the Mental Health Consumer Advocates of Rhode Island and a volunteer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Rhode Island. He is a trainer for the Rhode Island Council of Community Mental Health Organizations, has testified at the Rhode Island State House on several bills specific to mental health concerns, coordinated and participated in consumer rallies on behalf of Save Our Mental Health Services, and served as chair of the Consumer Advocacy Council at The Providence Center. In January, Jon began classes at the University of Rhode Island, where he is working toward a graduate degree in education.
Over the years, Jon has become more comfortable with his mental illness. He states, “I have embraced who I am. I love what I do and love the person I've become. I'm giving back. I enjoy being a leader and want to lead by example.” Jon is grateful to his family for their support. “My mother, grandmother, and uncle played a major part in my recovery,” says Jon. He is also very grateful for his treatment team at The Providence Center: “If I hadn't gone to The Providence Center, I could easily be in a hospital, homeless, in jail, in a group home, or even dead. They always gave 100% to me, even when I didn't give 100% back.”
Jon's remarkable journey toward recovery and ongoing efforts to help others struggling with mental illness have not gone unnoticed. In March 2007, Jon received the 2007 Excellence in Consumer and Family Advocacy Award from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. “Jon is well-deserving and truly embodies the spirit of this most prestigious award,” says Dale Klatzker, president/CEO of The Providence Center. “He has overcome incredible odds and works tirelessly to ensure that mental health consumers and their families are treated with respect and dignity. He is a true role model.”
Threasa Packhem is Communications Manager at The Providence Center, a member of the Mental Health Corporations of America.