Mother and son Susan and Chris Slattery, from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) speaker bureau, gave a talk last Wednesday, May 21st, at UC Irvine. The duo shared their personal struggles and triumphs coping with Chris’s battle with drug use and depression.
About 100 students and faculty came to the event. Caroline Nguyen, the host of the evening event, explained that the purpose of the talk was to break the negative stigma associated with mental illness.
“Things like mental health and mental illness are topics that are never easy to add to our daily conversations,” Nguyen said.
“Remaining silent is a very harmful option.”
Susan Slattery explained that a mental illness is a deregulation of emotions and thoughts. According to Susan, mental illness in today’s generation can originate three generations back, where grandparents did not have the tools or instructions to raise children. Grandparents would instill poor parenting values in their children. When these children became parents, they would then perpetuate poor parenting skills to their kids.
“It is really a ‘family’ illness,” Susan said. “Mental illness needs to be addressed as a family if you want recovery. You cannot have a patient get well and go back in the war zone alone because what it does is just set you up for relapse.”
For the first half of the talk, Susan shared her journey learning how to become the right parent for her son Chris. Forty years ago, after just finishing high school in Germany, Susan immigrated to the states. Susan initially planned on going to college, but found herself marrying and having her two children instead.
When Chris started high school, having just moved from another state, he confessed to his mom that he felt he could not fit in with his classmates. In retrospect, Susan realized she was not equipped with the skills to address her son’s problem.
“With my ignorance, I thought it was just teenagers going through puberty,” Susan said. “But the mistake that a lot of parents make, we don’t do it on purpose, is that we don’t validate our children’s feelings.”
Continuing to neglect Chris’s mental issues caused him to go into isolation and depression. Susan admits that at the time she did not know that there were resources out there to treat his underlying mental illness. Eventually, Chris got involved in heavy drug and alcohol use and cycled through four overdoses. Susan believes that is it quite a miracle that he is alive.
It was through NAMI and other self-help organizations that Susan got involved in support groups to learn more about Chris’ mental health needs and got him into the right therapy.
Chris continued the second half of the talk, giving the audience insight into why he got involved in drugs, how he dealt with his anxiety and depression, and what he did on his part to address his issue.
Chris, struggling with depression at the time, encountered classmates that were doing alcohol and drugs. He found that alcohol was his gateway drug to help him open up and talk to people.
“Alcohol took away my problems. It was like this security blanket. It just goes over you and blacks out all these feelings that are bothering you,” Chris said.
As time went on, Chris found himself not going to work, not going to school. His GPA was going down, and he ended up dropping out of community college and doing harder drugs. He was getting in trouble with the law. Chris’ life took a turn of events when he was forced into rehab by a court program. Rehab was the first place Chris learned about cognitive behavior therapy. It made him realize why he was using drugs and become more in tune with his feelings.
Chris was introduced into another rehab court program that took more than a year to complete. During that time, he took an active approach to addressing his mental illness and drug addiction. Chris stopped connecting with his friends that did drugs and learned to let go of his urges to use drugs. Within that time, Chris was able to go back into school and started working again. One of his new jobs is at a cat rescue shelter, where he has achieved a sense of peace.
“I get to deal with cats with issues. Usually they are old or sick, but there’s this humbling experience that you can sit back with them, play with them. You know they are happy,” Chris said. “It makes me happy and it relaxes me.”