Overcoming Stigma - United Way of Greater St. Louis

Bradley boards the bus wearing a striped polo and a smile.

He takes a seat near the front, the same seat he’s taken for years.

One by one children file in around him – giggling, smiling, yawning.

The engine roars to life. Over the next hour, they’ll make a dozen stops before their final destination. As school bus monitor, Bradley’s job is to make sure the kids get a fun-filled start to their day, starting with their favorite game.

“I spy with my little eye…” Bradley’s voice carries down the rows of youngsters already wriggling with excitement in their seats, “something red.”

They love this game. Some inspect their clothing. Some peer out windows. Some look under seats while others look to the roof.

Answers fly like firecrackers.

“That bird!”

“His hat!”

“The light!”

“My scraped knee!”

Bradley laughs.

They bump along the road and play a few more rounds before it’s story time – another favorite part of their morning routine.

Halfway through the book a voice disrupts him.

Don’t say that.

Bradley looks up. Blank eyes stare back. He dismisses it and continues to read. A few minutes pass and it happens again.

Why are you saying that?

He turns to locate the voice. Nothing. The kids look unfazed. Could they not hear it?

I know you hear me.

He closes the book and turns to the front of the bus. The radio. It was talking – not to everyone, just to him.

There’s been an accident. A horrible car accident.

The walls of the metal structure begin to cave.

Bradley…

His mind races.

…your family…they’re dead.

Outside he sees smoke. A car explodes in the distance. Then another. And another. Each getting closer to the bus.

He squeezes his eyes shut, pleads for it to stop. Just make it stop.

Listen to me!

He needs to get out – now – and runs to the exit.

33-year-old Bradley had experienced his first psychotic break.

Mountain ranges, mythical creatures and budding flowers – dozens of charcoal drawings litter the desk.

Most are sketched on small pieces of paper, but there’s one that’s much larger than the rest. A gilded heart with a flower. The flower isn’t typical – it’s not a rose or a daisy – it’s beautiful, exotic and unique. Thorns cover the winding stem. Beneath it is a scroll that reads “hope.”

The sketch is a favorite of Bradley’s.

“At the time I had my mental break, I was worried about my safety. I wasn’t going to harm anyone. I was worried that others would harm me.”

Drawing is a form of relaxation for Bradley. It’s something he’s done for years and is part of his wellness plan.

Other things in his plan include meditation and music. They’re things Bradley seeks when he begins to feel anxious. His anxiety can be triggered by a person’s body language, certain words or how they’re said.

Bradley continues to thumb through his work, sharing his inspiration behind each piece. His left knee bounces steadily – a sign of anxiety.

Anxiety can stem from any number of things, such as a person’s upbringing. In Bradley’s case, he didn’t have a typical childhood.

One of his earliest memories is when he was 3. He remembers watching his stepdad push his mom down the stairs. She was pregnant at the time. The abuse worsened and eventually his stepdad’s anger turned to Bradley and his siblings.

Bradley kept to himself at home and at school. He was extremely anxious and lacked self-esteem. Being so quiet put a target on him.

“There was no running from it. I was picked on all the time,” Bradley said. “I was bullied when I was at home; I was bullied when I was at school.”

At 13, Bradley was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and learned at that young age the stigma associated with mental illness.

The harassment escalated.

Instead of supporting Bradley during one of the most difficult times of his life, his stepdad threw him out. Bradley stayed with his grandparents and, over the years, learned how to manage his bipolar disorder.

In the days leading up to Bradley’s break he experienced nightmares, heard voices and had hallucinations.

What made his symptoms worse was his living situation. He was living with friends at the time and confided in them his delusions and hallucinations. He told them he struggled with determining what was real. He told them he needed help. But like his stepdad, instead of helping, his friends fueled the situation, purposely saying and doing things to spike his anxiety until they pushed him to the edge.

“They knew something was wrong with me, that I needed help. It was hard to decipher from what was real and what wasn’t,” Bradley said. “I told them, ‘If it’s in my head, let it be in my head. If it’s not, tell me that it’s not.’”

If you didn’t know Bradley’s story, you’d have no reason to suspect he has paranoid schizophrenia.

Schizophrenia is a mystery to many. It’s cloaked in more misunderstanding and fear than any other mental disorder. Research psychiatrist E. Fuller Torrey, M.D. refers to it as “the modern-day equivalent of leprosy.”

Eighty-five percent of Americans recognize that schizophrenia is a disorder, but only 24 percent are actually familiar with it. According to a survey conducted by the National Alliance of Mental Illness, 64 percent of people can’t recognize its symptoms or think the symptoms include “split” or multiple personalities.

Part of this confusion is due to the inability to relate. It’s difficult to imagine what having schizophrenia would be like.

As Bradley puts it: “It’s like a broken record. Imagine several voices playing over and over in your head.”

Having this disorder doesn’t prevent those with it from leading fulfilling lives. In Bradley’s case, he lives on his own, takes care of himself and is currently looking for a new job.

“With the right tools, treatment and support, people with schizophrenia can live happy, regular lives,” John Wuest of United Way-supported Call for Help said.

John is the Director of Call for Help’s Recovery Support Center and has helped numerous individuals with mental illness like Bradley find a recovery system that works for them.

Bradley first learned of Call for Help a year ago. After his psychotic break on the bus, he was referred to their Community Stabilization Program, safe and secure housing for people with mental illness, as well as their Recovery Support Center, a commonplace where people with mental illness can learn, share and connect with others.

The Center follows the clubhouse model. Members can attend peer-led support groups, take part in a special activities or events, seek employment support, research resource connections, talk with certified specialists or simply hang out.

It’s a safe, nonjudgmental place where all staff have navigated mental illness themselves. They know it’s not an easy road. They understand that those who live with mental illness can feel isolated. They help members set goals and take ownership of their recovery to achieve personal growth, empowerment, responsibility and independence.

One key feature of Call for Help is that their door is always open. Members don’t need to make an appointment or be placed on a waiting list for months.

“They can see any of us most any day,” John said.

Open availability is vital to recovery for those with mental illness. Mental illness can be unexpected and symptoms can vary daily. For someone with mental illness, having an available place to go and person to talk to can mean the difference between having a psychotic break and preventing one.

United Way support of Call for Help makes long-term prevention and recovery possible, especially during tough financial times like these.

In July of 2015 Illinois announced a budget impasse, the devastating effects of which continue to touch health and human service agencies across the state, including Call for Help, which assists residents of St. Clair County.

“Many people don’t understand that this cut has the power to affect the whole population. Here, at Call for Help, we help those who might otherwise fall through the cracks. It’s important to have these types of services available,” John explains. “That’s why United Way support is important. It allows us to remain afloat, especially in times like these when we need all the support we can get.”

Today, Bradley lives in an apartment in his hometown of Granite City, Illinois.

Even though he’s now living on his own, he knows he’s always welcome to the place that gave him hope, whether it’s to attend a group session, catch up with old friends or take part in an art or meditation class.

Before Call for Help, just the idea of speaking to strangers was enough to panic Bradley. Now he speaks confidently. People used to take advantage of him. Now he stands up for himself. He used to fear crowds and avoid eye contact. Now he shares stories and enjoys singing in front of large groups.

He’s doing things he never thought he’d have the self-assurance to do.

“My diagnosis is still new to me,” Bradley said. “I’m a good person. I want people to know that more than anything. Call for Help has helped me learn that I have an illness, but it doesn’t define me.”

About Call for Help
Call for Help helps people overcome a variety of personal crises, ranging from sexual assault and poverty to homelessness and mental illness. They change lives by giving people skills and support that empower them to overcome emotional and physical crisis to achieve their maximum potential for daily living. Call for Help has been a United Way agency since 1978.

If you believe you or a loved one is experiencing a mental health concern, please call 2-1-1 (1-800-427-4626) to find resources in your area that can help.