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Feherty: Courage and caring in the face of mental illness

FCBK 1By Eli Zaret, New Oakland Community Liaison

Fifteen million Americans – a staggering number — approximately 7% of our population suffer from clinical depression.  One of them is David Feherty, a golf commentator and the host of “Feherty” on the Golf Channel. His interview with Bryant Gumbel on the June HBO Real Sports is a must see for anyone with who cares about mental illness – which, of course, should be everyone.

Feherty is a man of unique wit and brilliance who, as Gumbel says, has a “Fertile mind that never slows.”  But he is also bi-polar as well as clinically depressed, and without feh 5taking about a dozen anti-depressants, stimulants and mood stabilizers a day, Feherty would likely be dead by now.

He says he doesn’t live a day at a time – it’s more like 20 minutes at a time. As for his cocktail of medications, he says, “If you stop taking them, especially if you stop abruptly, it’s a very short journey to the edge of that abyss.”

Feherty was greatly relieved when he came to understand that his crushing moods weren’t his fault – that he was clinically ill. Until then, his only means of coping with his shame and crushingly low self-esteem was to drink two bottles of whiskey a day and take more and more pain killers.

“I was a spectacular drunk, I was good at it,” he told Gumbel. “It brought me out of my shell initially and then I developed an extraordinary tolerance. It was always to get to the place – and every alcoholic and addict will know what that means. For most of us, it’s close to oblivion.”

After twice becoming Ireland’s national golf champion, a member of the European Ryder Cup team and a ten-time winner in international tournaments, he was prescribed pain killers for elbow pain. Those and the booze soon ended his golf career and also kept him on his daily quest to become “comfortably numb,” a state he rarely reached.

I first ran into Feherty about 20 years ago when he entertained a roomful of men after a golf outing. I was blown away by his terrific, hilarious and rapid-fire story-telling ability. The audience was rolling in the aisles and it seemed inevitable that he’d eventually use his wacky, court jester type humor to become a media star, which he has in spectacular fashion with his award winning show and his charm and humor as a tournament commentator.

feh 3But even though the medication now keeps him relatively sane, it can’t completely squelch the inner demons and bouts of depression that fortunately pale in comparison to what he formerly experienced.

“You hear about someone’s child getting murdered.  I would vicariously take on that sadness that a parent must feel and unimaginable grief would seep into my life where I would dream about it – a cloak I couldn’t get off. It can go for weeks, months and it makes no sense to be stuck in a chair in tears. After all, my life is perfect.”

Ten years ago, with a wonderful new wife and a soaring career, he was with golfing great Tom Watson, himself a former alcoholic.

“I was interviewing Tom and all I could think about was the bottle and pills in my room. He put his hand over the lens and looked at me and said, “You’re not well are you?” And I said, ‘No I’m not. feh 9How do you know?’  And he said, “I can see it in your eyes.” And I said, ‘what can you see?’ He said, “My reflection.”

He hasn’t had a drink since.

Like most addicts, idle time is an enemy. He’s become obsessive about cycling and other hobbies to quiet and focus his mind.

Feherty’s willingness to talk openly about his mental illness and hopefully encourage and empower millions of others who understand his pain first hand, is an act of benevolence consistent with the self-effacing personality that is a critical element of the humor and charisma and that draws others close to him.

On the HBO segment, Rickey Fowler said, “Feherty is a special creature.” Fellow Northern Ireland native Rory McIlroy said that after he lost the 2011 Masters Feherty joined him and his friends at dinner. “He lifted the mood of everyone,” said McIlroy. “It takes a special and rare person to do that.”

In recent years, I’ve been able to spend time with Feherty when he’s visited mutual friends in the Detroit golf community. And now that I’m aligned with New Oakland and its outreach to thousands of Michiganders who struggle with many of the demons that haunt Feherty, I’m all the more proud to have made his acquaintance.

No one should suffer mental illness in silence or feel shame over the awful stigma that still plagues millions and forces them into the disease’s shadows. If David Feherty has the courage to reveal himself to the world and be thankful for the guidance and medication that’s kept him alive, shouldn’t everyone else?






The Stigma of Mental Illness is so Tragically Hard to Shake

IMG_0234By Kevin Sendi, Director New Oakland

Too many physicians suffer with depression in silence, afraid to ask for help for fear they will be punished professionally, and probably, personally.

Aaron E. Carroll, professor of pediatrics at Indiana University School of Medicine

On some level, it’s almost unimaginable that doctors, who routinely treat all manner of physical illness, would try to hide the fact that they may have an equally natural mental condition. Dr. Carroll cites a 2008 study of doctors in Michigan in which a quarter of the respondents reported knowing a doctor whose professional standing had been hurt by being depressed.

Depression, in fact, is more common in doctors than it is in the general population. It’s likely due to the nature of their work; the pressure to help others and the suffering they see.stigma

The rate of suicide among male physicians is 140 percent that of the general population. But since there is still such a stigma attached to mental health, only a quarter of doctors with depression seek any kind of help!

When will we finally put an end to this terribly damaging stigma, as if mental health is a choice or makes us less valuable as human beings?

This is another indication of the uphill battle that people with mental illness and their caregivers, like New Oakland, face every day.

Stereotypes about minorities and the stigmas associated with them die hard. Think about African Americans and people with alternative sexual orientations who have been fighting stigmas throughout history. But unlike those groups that have forced change and acceptance by pushing back en masse against ugly stigmas, the mentally ill don’t have the organizational capabilities to do it alone. Instead, they fill jail cells and crowd emergency rooms as far too few get the help they need. They remain tragically stigmatized and either mistreated or under-treated.

And as we know all too well: stigma leads to prejudice, discrimination and poor treatment of those with mental illness.

A Huffington Post article points out the damage caused by the stigma of mental illness:

  • Between 20-25% of the homeless population suffers from a severe mental illness
  • While 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental disorder, it’s estimated that nearly two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment
  • Stigma leads to fear, mistrust, and violence against the mentally ill and causes family and friends to turn their backs on people with mental illness
  • Between 25-40% of the mentally ill will pass through the criminal justice system

stigma 2The very reason for New Oakland’s existence is that our founder, Dr. Ismail Sendi, was director of the Fairlawn Center in Pontiac. It was an outstanding State facility in the early 90’s before it and many others were closed due to state budgetary constraints. Creating New Oakland was his way of trying to help the thousands of mentally ill people in metro-Detroit that he knew would now have nowhere to turn.

Dr. Sendi was aware of the stigma that has created the current mental health calamity: According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, 25% of adults with mental health symptoms believe that people are uncaring and unsympathetic to them. That’s why so many, like our doctors, suffer in silence, become homeless or simply don’t seek help.

Because they can’t fight for themselves, is why we and others fight hard for them by not just treating them, but by also approaching lawmakers and creating awareness any way we can.

The good news is that there are significant ways that you can help overcome the stigma of mental illness:

  • Donate or Volunteer : According to Time Magazine, the mental health charities with the most impact are: American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, Brain & Behavior Research Foundation, Treatment Advocacy Center, Trevor Project. But there are others, like NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness) which we support.
  • Attend an Event: Attending a mental health event draws attention to the cause and allows you to meet like-minded peers. NAMI is a great place to start. You can find events and join the local chapters.
  • Share Your Story: Your story or that of a loved one who has had a victory over mental illness or addiction can inspire others. Your struggle and experiences, or the struggle faced by someone you know, can educate others and draw attention to helpful resources and also areas where improvement is needed.

Many people who’d remained quiet until mental illness struck their family have recently become advocates. Rick Warren, founder of a mega church in California, struggled to find care for his son, Matthew, who committed suicide at 27. Warren compared the stigma of mental illness to that of AIDS and HIV. He pointed out that in both cases, people are blamed for bringing suffering upon themselves.

​”If I have diabetes, there is no stigma to that,” Warren told USA Today. “But if my brain doesn’t work, why am I supposed to be ashamed of that? It’s just another organ. People will readily admit to taking medicine for high blood pressure, but if I am taking medication for some kind of mental problem I’m having, I’m supposed to hide that.”

Anything affecting 50 million innocent people should not be stigmatized. Although progress has been made to equate mental and physical illnesses and the insurance costs that go with it, we have a long way to go.

Are you ready and willing to be an advocate?





A Vital “S.E.L.” Job

IMG_0234By Kevin Sendi, Director, New Oakland

When I endured public school for what seemed like an endless 12 years, I never questioned why, how or what they taught me. It wasn’t until I was deep in the throes of adulthood that I started to think, ‘Why didn’t they also try to teach how I could someday be a good husband and father?’ Or, at the time, ‘how I could have better coped with peer pressure, bullying or the anxiety I felt before a test?’

In any case, the world my generation faced didn’t pack a fraction of the emotionally daunting pressures kids must now deal with in the emotional and social Petrie dish called “School.”

There was a time when they wouldn’t shoot Elvis Presley below the waist on the Ed Sullivan show. Today, we have Miley Cyrus simulating sex acts on prime time TV and any 14-year old with a smart phone or computer can watch hardcore pornography whenever he wants.

Being a kid has never been harder – and being a parent in 2015 seems nearly impossible. After you’ve shielded them from the pervasive pressures of social media and the hyper-sexed internet world, then maybe you can start trying to explain school shootings and ISIS.

Today’s schoolchildren confront not only the many difficulties of growing up, but also an increasingly fraught testing environment, a lower tolerance for physical acting out and the pervasive threat of violence. Poverty and income inequality also create onerous emotional conditions for many

With programs under the heading of S.E.L., which stands for social and emotional learning, a growing number of educators are now embracing a process through which elementary school kids can become more aware of their feelings and learn to relate more peacefully to others. It’s the concept of “emotional intelligence,” popularized in the 1990s by Daniel Goleman’s best-selling book of the same name.

Dr. Mark Greenberg, a professor of human development and psychology at Penn State says, “The ability to get along with others is really the glue of images (1)healthy human development.” Greenberg is a co-author of a major S.E.L. study, and says that social competence outweighed other variables like early academic achievement and family circumstances when it came to predicting outcomes. “That tells us that the skills underlying what we’re testing — getting along with others, making friendships — really are master skills that affect all aspects of life.”

Julie Scelfo is a former staff writer for The New York Times who writes often about human behavior. “Feeling left out? Angry at your mom? Embarrassed to speak out loud during class? Proponents of S.E.L. say these feelings aren’t insignificant issues to be ignored in favor of the three R’s. Unless emotions are properly dealt with, they believe, children won’t be able to reach their full academic potential.”

Scelfo explains that S.E.L., sometimes called character education, embraces the idea that everyone experiences a range of positive and negative feelings. It also gives children tools to slow down and think when facing conflicts, and teaches them to foster empathy and show kindness, introducing the concept of shared responsibility for a group’s well-being.

Decades of research reveals the five goals of S.E.L. for students:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to reflect on one’s own feelings and thoughts.
  • Self-management (or self-control): The ability to control one’s own thoughts and behavior.
  • Social awareness: The ability to empathize with others, recognize social cues and adapt to various situations.
  • Relationship skills: The ability to communicate, make friends, manage disagreements, recognize peer pressure and cooperate.
  • Responsible decision making: The ability to make healthy choices about one’s own behavior while weighing consequences for others.

images (2)New Oakland sees great value in helping children understand the emotional needs and techniques that are critical to themselves and others. In researching S.E.L. we studied results from P.S. 130 in New York, where the hallway outside a third-grade classroom is decorated with drawings made by students showing their aspirations for the current school year.

One child hopes “to make new friends.” Another wants to “be nice and help.”And another who had already made great progress in overcoming his emotional issues drew a self-portrait under which he wrote: “My hope for myself this year is to get better at math.”

Ask your school system about its association with SEL. And to see how it’s made a difference in other cities, read the following from a school district in Oakland CA.