The following are published articles which have appeared in the Orlando Sentinel newspaper.
GENEROSITY OF SPIRIT
SMOOTHS RIDE THROUGH LIFE - I DISCOVERED A SAFE HAVEN WHERE I COULD LEARN
THE "HOW-TO'S" OF LIFE
Some of life's most important lessons are cumulative. In time, they are recognized as a thread that runs so true throughout life.
The most important lesson in my life was about generosity of spirit. It is an essentially human gift that we have to give to each other. It defines us, inspires us and gives us hope. My mentor and my friends gave it to me as a gift.
A quarter of a century is a long time to walk through life with a group of friends, led by a psychiatrist, Walter J. Muller, who believed in us. He has mentored us for 25 years. Although several of us now participate in other services, we came together as graduates of a pioneering local program for severely mentally ill teenagers and young adults. Most of us have biologically determined brain diseases called schizophrenia or variations of psychotic disorders.
The so-called past residents' group was the follow-up part of this unique project. It was created and run by Dr. Muller, who established the program in 1973.
For some of us, this unusual program was the last stop before the state institution. Some of my friends were taken there by despairing and almost-hopeless families. One of us was brought back to the house by the police, who picked her up while she was walking down Interstate 4 in the middle of the night, barefoot, in the pouring rain. A long time ago, our group put a raincoat and shoes on her and persuaded her to stay off the interstate. She is now living independently and is contributing to life through a volunteer commitment to a nursing home.
I came knocking on the door in 1975 after a stay in a local hospital. I had a
devastating illness, no anchors and very little hope left.
Like my friends, I was embraced by the program and taught important survival skills and the basics of how to live with the long-term illness of schizophrenia.
The past residents' group took up where the residential phase left off.
It was and is a basic remediation group on life. This is where we have
learned the difficult "how-to's'' of life that most people take for granted --
how to find and keep friends, how to connect with other people and how to
navigate through a world that often doesn't understand us and is sometimes
downright afraid of us.
These are the most frustrating and elusive "how to's'' that we have to master.
These are the deficits that sometimes leave mentally ill people with the haunting feeling of standing on the periphery of life, alone, looking through the invisible barrier of illness, forever a spectator of life. It is like watching a movie with characters and actors you do not know, with a vague plot that you don't quite understand. For some of us, after many years, a sliver of the intricate synchrony of life going on around us is just moving into view.
Through the years, we have learned to identify and appreciate our abilities and how daily to manage the potential destruction caused by molecular-level dysfunction encoded into our brains and our lives.
The long-term commitment and confidence of the doctor who has led us
have drawn all of us out of the shadows of mental illness into the light of
friendship and self-respect. He celebrates with us the victories of our slow,
uphill ascent against these chronic brain diseases. When someone has been able to silence the voices in his or her head or when one of us passes a year or another year with no visits to the hospital, Dr. Muller shares our successes
I have found that these 25 years of stumbling through life
together with this group has often been punctuated by laughter at our dumb
mistakes, birthday parties and spontaneous acts of friendship and alliance.
We put our failures into perspective, learn from them and let them go.
In the words of our leader, "We keep on keeping on.''
The most important lesson I have learned in my life is a continually evolving understanding that the gift of generosity of spirit -- freely given -- has the enduring power to heal and to free.
With it, nothing in life is insurmountable.
THE ORLANDO SENTINEL
- Saturday, September 30, 2000
Peggy Symons , special to the sentinel
Florida legislators have the opportunity to address fail-first insurance protocols that prevent patients like me from receiving medication in a timely manner. I know firsthand what it's like to be
denied necessary medications because patients are being treated like a number, rather than as an individual.
Fail-first, or step-therapy, protocols require a patient to try the least expensive treatment or medication to address a problem, despite what a patient's physician recommends. After failing first on the least-expensive option, a patient can then receive the medication and at the doses their physician originally prescribed. These protocols allow many patients' conditions to deteriorate.
I have suffered from schizophrenia and bipolar disorder for more than 40 years, and have dealt with a history of suicidal tendencies and emerging mental illness with improper medications. For many years, I have struggled to receive the proper medications that I need. I failed on more than 30 medications before finding two that work.
As a dual-eligible Medicaid patient, I was transferred to a Medicare Part D plan and was told that there would be no restrictions on my medications. Immediately after being transferred to Medicare Part D, I was faced with barriers and repeated denials.
This continued for more than 50 denials, despite the appeals made by my physician who noted the dangerous side effects from the cheaper dose levels suggested due to fail-first protocols. After months of fighting the battle alongside my doctors, I was finally approved for the proper doses of my medication.
It's imperative that we ensure that patients aren't subjected to complicated processes to receive necessary medications. The current legislation -- House Bill 863 by Rep. Shawn Harrison and Senate Bill 784 by former Senate President Don Gaetz -- can help to address these problems with insurance companies. Our representatives need to capitalize on the opportunity this legislative session to protect Florida's patients and help to guarantee that patients have access to proper medication.
Patients need the right medicine at the right doses at the most appropriate time to ensure the best and most efficient course of treatment.
Civil-rights fight persists for mentally ill
Orlando Sentinel, Wednesday, December 24, 2014
Deadly encounters with police have ignited a fierce debate over the future of civil rights in
Intense focus on the rights of citizenship, including the right to be free of discrimination, cannot exclude the largest segregated group in the nation: one in four people who experience a mental illness.
These citizens, including our children, remain ruthlessly segregated at the bottom of state budget bills that eliminate critically necessary medical and psychiatric services. At 49th in the nation for per-capita spending on mental illnesses, Florida is among the worst offenders.
There are now five times as many people with these disorders of the brain in jails and prisons than hospitals; once arrested, they remain incarcerated much longer than others who commit the same offenses.
About a third of the homeless are mentally ill.
These are not idle facts; they are vital statistics and evidence of where we have segregated mental illnesses. They also expose civil-rights abuses so serious they spill into breach of human rights.
On June 23, 2012, guards at the Dade County Correctional Institution threw a mentally ill prisoner into a scalding shower for more than an hour; he burned to death. News coverage of the death revealed rampant discrimination and abuse of mentally-ill inmates in Florida's prison system.
This case, along with others, reveals the secrecy that riddles the prison system and exposes practices that treat people with mental illnesses with cruelty, abuse and neglect.
All citizens have constitutional rights to be treated equally under the law. But it is clear that prejudice and discrimination have swallowed the civil rights of a category of people who have the least ability to take them back.
The civil-rights era of the 1960s was a wrenching period of life-and-death struggles. People lost their lives, their homes and their jobs. Fifty years have passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 became law, but for some, including those with mental illness, the battle endures.
The evidence is clear that prejudice and discrimination driven by their deep roots are not dead. Without constant vigilance and the reach of moral law, they will continue to cast a long shadow over the identity of our nation.
Peggy J. Symons lives in DeLand, Fl
Column: MY WORD PEGGY SYMONS Copyright (c) 2014, Orlando Sentinel Communications. All rights reserved.
Since the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado 15 years ago, one mass murder after
another has shaken the nation. The latest rampage was at the hands of a California man who had a long history of mental illness.
It is a grave error to look away from the high-profile tragedies seizing other states with the complacent illusion that somehow Florida is immune from the toll and consequences of untreated mental illnesses.
Keeping in mind that people living with serious mental illnesses are overwhelmingly nonviolent, it is becoming increasingly clear that there is a small fraction of individuals who do become violent, almost always in the absence of treatment and modern medications.
Legitimate debate over how to prevent further loss of life is breaking out all over the nation, including Florida. Searching for answers to violence and mental illnesses must encompass the fact that the greatest loss of life to mental illness in Florida isn't to homicide; it is to suicide and early death accruing through decades of restricted access to timely and effective psychiatric services.
Suicide rates are rising; 2,922 people in Florida ended their lives in 2012. More than 90 percent of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness.
In addition, nearly two-thirds of those suffering with these diseases of the brain are not receiving treatment.
More than two dozen psychiatric hospitals have closed since 1995, leaving thousands of the most acutely ill people in the state nowhere to go.
These statistics are a sliver of Florida's fatally flawed policy of neglecting serious mental illnesses.
Prejudice and discrimination have put serious mental illnesses at the back of the bus for decades; yet lawmakers never seem to see the collision between failed public policy and preventable loss of life.
Predictably, the 2014 Legislature convened and adjourned leaving Florida stubbornly stuck at 49th in the nation for funding community-level psychiatric care.
Until the state of Florida is stunned into action by a sudden strike of violence, significant reform of one of the nation's most inadequate and underfunded mental-health systems will remain mired in low priorities and the hidden suffering of thousands of people, including children, who are shut out of any hope of recovery from serious mental illnesses.
There are warning bells tolling through every life lost to mental illnesses. We cannot turn away as if we do not hear; the bells are tolling for us.
Don't assume mentally ill are violent
- Wednesday, May 16, 2012
Sentinel's article Saturday on the men charged with murdering two teenage boys was graphic and frightening ("2 arrested in killing of 2 teens").
According to the article, one of these men has a lengthy history of
violence and schizophrenia.
Without counterbalancing information on schizophrenia, this heinous crime is casting a long shadow over mental illness and perpetuating the myth that those of us who suffer from it are categorically violent people.
It is important to know that violence is not inherent to
Research published in the August 2005 issue of the
Archives of General Psychiatry found that people living with serious mental
illnesses are victims of violent crime at "a rate of 11 times higher than the
In a further twist of the myth, the most underreported and under-treated aspect of this disorder in women is exposure to violence, trauma and abuse.
Schizophrenia is a devastating disorder of the brain; it strikes young, and it hits hard. The most common act of violence associated with this illness isn't murder; it's suicide.
In addition, poor health and lack of access to medical care take a heavy toll. This illness lops an average of 25 years off the lifespans of those who bear its burdens.
In 2012, there is promise ahead as research unravels the complex
biological codes and puzzles of serious mental illnesses.
But when the
words "murder" and "schizophrenic" intermingle in a front-page newspaper
article, the public portrait of this illness becomes framed in violence.
Stereotypes push the perception of mental illnesses back into the dark ages.
The story about this violent crime on Cady Way Trail in Winter Park is
an opportunity to shed the light of understanding on schizophrenia, to separate violence from mental illness and to topple the illusions that continue to drive stigma, discrimination and stereotypes.
Helen Keller tagged her target perfectly when she said, "The world is full of suffering; it is also full of the overcoming of it."
When violence haunts the headlines, don't be afraid
of people with schizophrenia; we are your friends, your neighbors and your loved ones.
Peggy J .Symons of DeLand is a member of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Orlando.
Shedding Light On Suicide
The Orlando Sentinel
- Saturday, February 16, 2008
The Orlando Sentinel's Feb. 8 article about suicide casts a striking light of truth into the broadly held belief that people living
with mental illnesses are
categorically violent toward others.
When people die of these brain disorders, they don't usually go up in smoke and fire like the Virginia Tech student who killed 30 people before he shot himself. They die of suicide in the shadows of the night, and then fall into America's archives of the forgotten, where nothing ever moves or changes.
Most of us are impacted by mental illnesses in some way, either by circumstances or biology. Yet access to modern medications and expert psychiatry is crumbling across the nation. We have the ability and the responsibility to build a better system of care for those among us who are profoundly ill and forsaken.
The hope of their healing is in our hands.
Trained officers discern difference between crime and mental illness
- Friday, April 25, 2008
Author: Peggy Symons
team training is a 40-hour specialized course for law-enforcement officers about how to respond to crisis calls from people who have the disorders of the brain that cause mental illnesses.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Orlando presents the actual experiences of people who live with these disorders of the brain and our families.
The officers come into our classes as "strangers in a strange land," to borrow the title of Robert Heinlein's science-fiction novel.
Forty hours later, they graduate, fully equipped with the keys and the compass of certified Crisis Intervention Team Officers.
Deep and drastic funding cuts have swept hospital beds,
medications and psychiatric services from the most seriously ill.
By default, law-enforcement agencies are now the first responders to severe mental illnesses.
Because trained officers know the difference between a mental
illness and a crime, they are turning the tumblers on the locks and shackles of the inappropriate criminalization of mental illnesses.
We watch their faces engage as we take them down the dark and difficult back roads of mental illnesses, where people lose their way and sometimes even lose their lives.
One of our greatest rewards is to see the light of recognition and
understanding flash across the faces in the room, and in that instant, know they have become our torchbearers and keepers of the light.
This is a unique light.
It rises through their ranks as the heroics of prevention.
The heroics of prevention are in the armed standoffs that don't happen
because the officers know how to reach across the psychotic abyss and disarm delusions before the first shots are fired.
They are the heroics in the headlines that don't rock our communities because specially trained officers know how to de-escalate the high-profile tragedies of mental illnesses before they happen.
The officers are the light that lives on in people who
don't fall to suicide because crisis-intervention teams know how to throw
lifelines to people in the most desperate moments of their lives.
I believe that all of us have a call on our lives to serve the common good.
Whether we walk toward that call, or walk away from it, we leave
indelible footprints on life.
The men and women of Central Florida's crisis intervention teams have honored a call on their lives.
They will also be walking with us, the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Orlando, on Saturday at Lake Lilly in Maitland. Come and join us, our officers, and jazz artist Joyce Cooling at 9 a.m.
We will be walking to the "Music of the Mind."
PeggySymons lives in Deland,Florida
CENTER STAGE FOR SCHIZOPHRENIA
- Friday, March 22, 2002
As the date of the
Academy Awards approaches, once again A Beautiful Mind is on the American mind.
The box-office draw of the story of the Nobel Prize
winner John Nash's journey through life with schizophrenia has pulled this
illness out of the dark and dusty basement of non-awareness right onto center
stage. It has created a bridge of shared experience as the story of Nash's life
unfolds with some striking parallels to my own experience of living with a
The frightening intensity of Nash's delusional world
was so authentically presented that I, of all people, thought it was real.
In the three months since the release of A Beautiful Mind, the widely
held stereotypes that we are categorically violent people or "split
personalities" are yielding to the understanding of just how human we are. There is a new understanding that a person living with schizophrenia can have a beautiful mind. People are now asking who we are. They are beginning to
understand our humanity and that this is an illness of intense impact. It is no
one's fault, and it is never a choice.
Neuroscience is advancing on
schizophrenia, but it is a complex, chronic and challenging disorder. It will
give up its secrets slowly. The current focus on mental illness is an
opportunity of immediate relevance to present the needs of mentally ill people
as issues of substance. One in five families is struggling with the brain
disorders causing mental illnesses.
If anyone is looking for us, many of
us are behind the locked doors of prisons. Often we are arrested for our
symptoms rather than for true criminal intent. It is illegal to lie on park
benches or trespass on Dumpsters.
As funding for vital mental-health services dwindles, prisons have become the de facto psychiatric hospitals of the 21st century. Reduced to dollars and no sense, the costs of jailing us are more expensive than it would be to treat us. We exist behind the locked doors of "no access" to effective treatment. We live behind the walls of stigma and misunderstanding. This is where much of our humanity remains hidden.
It has been through the new lens of A Beautiful Mind that we have been given the vision to understand, to value and to respect the inner beauty of so many people like John Nash, walking through life with chronic, severe mental illnesses.
These are our neighbors and our loved ones. Who will see their inner beauty and who will know their names? How do we answer the age-old question of conscience and responsibility? Am I my brother's keeper?
If my brothers and sisters are the most profoundly ill and vulnerable among us, then, yes, the answer always comes back close to me:
I am my brother's keeper.
PeggySymons lives in Deland,Florida. She is a member of
the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the Mental
- Tuesday, April 24, 2001
Senate bill 792,
sponsored by Sen. Ron Silver of Miami, is rolling through the Florida Senate, having assumed a legislative legitimacy it does not deserve. This bill is an attempt to cut Medicaid drug costs by
weakening or restricting access to medications that 40,000 Floridians rely on to treat the serious brain diseases
that cause mental illnesses.
These newer medicines are the most effective recent development in the neurobiological treatment of these complex and often life-disrupting illnesses.
As Silver and Gov. Jeb Bush well know, restricting access to medicines that work results in the predictable, preventable, huge end costs of jails, hospitals, emergency rooms and immeasurable human suffering.
This senseless budget-cutting attempt is occurring at the same time as Bush presses to cut taxes benefiting the wealthiest among us. This is a crystal-clear presentation of the political charades that often accompany the unfairness of mental-health issues. There are 40,000 Floridians with brain diseases, most of them silenced by stigma, who will be affected by this bill, essentially without representation.
Peggy Symons lives in Deland, Florida
Thursday, October 25, 2001
The special session
of the Legislature has become the equivalent of the emergency room of the state.
Like effective triage in an emergency room,
allocation of resources should be mandated in order of the severity of impact on the lives of Floridians.
Thousands of low-income elderly and disabled
people access prescription drugs through Medicaid and the Medically Needy
Catastrophic Costs program. Cutting these drugs will result in massive new costs as severe illnesses erupt.
The heaviest costs will accrue in the certain
relapse of thousands of people taking the new, expensive medications that
effectively treat the severe and chronic brain dysfunctions causing
schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
The state of New Hampshire has
provided the best medical triage lesson for emergency management of funds. For every dollar cut in psychiatric drugs, the state hemorrhaged out $17 per person in rehospitalization costs.
Intelligent triaging means preventing known casualties before they occur.
Peggy J. Symons Deland Fl
STEREOTYPES IN MOVIES STIGMATIZE THE MENTALLY ILL
- Friday, August 3, 2001
It comes as little
surprise to me that Psycho was No. 1 on the American Film
Institute's list of the top 100 thrillers. Psycho, of course, offers the
award-winning scene of Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates slashing his victim in the shower of the Bates Motel.
Janet Leigh, though, is not Psycho's only victim. Also victimized all along have been the tedious, quiet heroics of mental-health advocates.
Movies such as Psycho and One Flew Over the
Cuckoo's Nest have exploited people with neurobiological illnesses by creating images without conscience.
They have made millions of dollars to entertain us, yet people with brain disorders have paid the price in the erosion of our humanity and in the demeaning of the difficulties of our lives.
There is a persistent cultural undercurrent of fear and misunderstanding
that surrounds these complex and serious neurobiological disorders. The
entertainment industries are the most powerful image makers of our culture. They have expertly captured and marketed these lurking shadows, realizing the profit potential.
In reality, mentally ill people must travel some of the deepest currents and difficult roads that run throughout life, often having to draw on reservoirs of courage and tenacity that many people never know or see.
We walk the no-choice, no-fault roads laid in front of us by schizophrenia or severe mood disorders. Together, with our advocates, we have held each other's hands and shared our loads of grief and loss.
None of us could ever be mistaken as residents of the Bates Motel; neither do we fly over cuckoos' nests. If we have flown at all, it has been on the hard-won wings of self-respect and alliance.
The re-emergence of Psycho within weeks of
the July 11 annual meeting of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill in
Washington, D.C., presented a focused opportunity for open words of
encouragement to the advocates who believe in us, the families who love us and the professionals who legitimize us.
It is my hope that these advocates will carry the gift of our encouragement with them always, along with the hope and promise of building a new day.
When you are tired, or it seems like breaking down the entrenched walls of stigma and unfairness are hopeless or so far away, take this gift out of your pockets and hold it up to the sun.
The light you will see is the light that will lead you past the barriers
of misunderstanding and past the shadows of stigma cast by those who do not know us. This is the light of hope and promise that you hold in your hands. This is the light of the sun.
Light the roads traveled by mentally ill people and you will bring the rest of the world along with us.
Peggy J. Symons lives in Deland, Florida