After a distinguished career in the Navy, I was proud to join the public sector utilizing the immeasurable discipline and knowledge I had acquired serving in our country’s military. I enrolled in a rigorous doctor of education (Ed.D.) program at Vanderbilt University with an emphasis in Human Resource Development. I was well on the way to establishing a new career as an independent management consultant. Areas of focus included organizational development, prospective employee screening, and middle-management development.

Always keeping an eye on my roots, I pitched a proposal on the needs of returning veterans to The Tennessee Department of Veterans’ Affairs and even provided testimony to the Subcommittee on Oversight of the Committee on Veterans Affairs to the 102nd Congress. Also, immediately after retirement, I researched the impact of military base closings for then, Senator Al Gore in his Washington, D.C. office. I was a man headed toward success, but my body and mind had different ideas.

Mental health detour

Just shy of completing my doctoral program, I was stricken by an acute episode of depression. I couldn’t get out of bed. I had no energy. I couldn’t focus. After a year of recovery, it became apparent that I would not complete the requirements for my doctorate degree. I was devastated. My goals, dreams and aspirations drifted away.

While not recognizing it at the time, I was one of the fortunate ones. My insurance provided access to the mental health services and prescription medications I required. However, I did not readily accept the help available to me, for I faced an obstacle I now recognize as internalized stigma. It is a legitimate problem for people facing mental health challenges and can delay their receiving treatment and recapturing their lives. I got back my life through the help of a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance support group. I drove 100 miles one-way, once a week to attend a meeting. By modeling to me their own lives rich in community, meaningful work and friends, I eventually threw off the resentment and bitterness that I had been carrying inside me about living with a mental health condition.

From the board room to the advocacy board

Today I am putting to work all of the education and management skills I acquired before the onset of my depressive disorder to build a new career for myself as a mental health advocate. I am the founder and current president of DBSA Jackson going on its 12th year. This organization conducts three different inspirational support groups. One, a weekly group in its fourth year, is held with inpatients at a local behavioral health hospital.

In 2011 I published my first book ˗ The Two Agreements: A Good News Story for Our Time with all proceeds going to the DBSA Jackson chapter. My book outlines the foundation of a healthy spiritual life of my own design that fuels my passion for service to others. I am presently working with the Small Business Development Center and DBSA Jackson board members to establish a partnership for stability, growth and exposure of the chapter.

I continue to offer leadership serving as the State Director, DBSA Tennessee. But fighting stigma whether internal, at the workplace, or in schools continues to drive me. Serving as a board member on the Consumer Advisory Board for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse, with my urging, an ad hoc committee to focus on anti-stigma initiatives has been created. A few days ago, I became a member of the Board of Directors for the Tennessee Mental Health Consumers’ Association, one of the only national mental health consumer/survivor owned and operated organizations.

National advocacy

I recently returned from Washington, D.C. after participating in the largest national mental health advocacy event. I visited my elected officials. I told my personal story and described the dire needs of members of my support group. Before leaving their office, I asked each staff member this simple question, “Can you imagine how I feel each week faced with desperate, resourceless attendees in my support group and I am without any more telephone numbers to give out in order for them to find help?”

Erasing stigma supports access to mental health screenings, enabling those who need it to seek and accept treatment. We all can, and should do our part so that I never run out of phone numbers to hand out.