Thursday, November 10, 2016

Humbled and honored, twice

On Wednesday evening, November 9, Yolanda and I attended the annual fundraiser for Butler Hospital, the world-renown treatment, research and teaching hospital (The Warrant Alpert Medical School at Brown University) in Providence, Rhode Island. I was there to receive a community-service award for my decades of writing and filmmaking about mental health and neurological disorders. For Yolanda, a mental-health therapist who once studied and worked at Butler, it was a chance to see many old friends. For me, a high and humbling honor. This was not a contest one enters, but an award that came my way out of the blue.

My remarks below.

I, too, saw some friends – some I knew were would be there, some not. In the latter category were Cindy and John Duncan, farmers from Richmond, Rhode Island, who lost their teenaged daughter Cassie to suicide on Christmas Day 2005. Cindy found her.

“Her door was locked,” Cindy would recall. “I banged on the door. I didn’t hear anything. Then I smashed open the door. She was gone.”

From that terrible tragedy, the Duncans brought great good: a growing public crusade that includes the Rainbow Race, the yearly fundraiser they organize and host that benefits the Rhode Island chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“We have to take the dark cloud of stigma and fear away from mental illness and replace it with the rainbow of hope!” the Duncans declared in announcing the 2016 race.

Wanting to help such a good cause, I spent part of a day in May with the family and wrote a story and shot a video for The Providence Journal, which you can read here.

And I left a favorite jacket at the Duncans’ house. When I later got back to them, they said they would keep it at their farm stand for the next time I happened to be in the area. It was closed the one time I went by.

So there they were, surprise (to me) guests at Wednesday’s Butler fundraiser. It was wonderful to see them, introduce Yolanda to them, and just be in their company. At one point, Cindy said that having learned I would be there, she had brought my jacket. I could hardly believe it. How thoughtful! Cindy pointed to a shopping bag under the table. I looked, but did not open.

The Duncans had left by the time I did look. More than a jacket was inside:

Inside was a beautiful print of a flower. Cassie had made it. Among many other wonderful things in her short life, she was an artist.

“Hi, Wayne,” read Cindy’s note attached to her daughter’s art. “This print is one of Cassie’s and I would like you to have it. Thank you for all your help, ♥ Cindy and John.”

I nearly cried. Actually, I did cry.

I will frame Cassie’s flower, place it in my study, and treasure it always, a reminder of how precious life is -- and how, especially at a time when so many bad things happen, there are inspiring and loving people who selflessly work, one day at a time, in their neighborhood, town or state, to make the world a better place.

Thank you, Cindy and John, and thank you, Cassie.

Community service award, Cassie Duncan's flower.

My remarks after receiving the Lila M. Sapinsley Community Service Award:

Thank you, Dr. Price, and my thanks to the Butler Hospital Foundation. I am humbled and honored to receive this award. I knew Lila Sapinsley and always admired her many causes that benefitted so many people. Her heart was big. I’d like to think she would approve of my name now being associated with hers.

Let me also thank The Providence Journal, which has supported my work for so long and given me the time and resources needed to bring it to fruition. Our publisher, Janet Hasson, is here tonight – thank you, Janet, for your commitment.

Let me also thank someone who is not here: former editor Joel Rawson, who more than 30 years ago assigned me to cover the state-prison and child-welfare systems, and what was then known as the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals. That assignment began my long career in social-justice journalism, which remains my passion.

Thanks to my wife Yolanda, a mental-health therapist who imparts her greater wisdoms to me about the field that connects us.

Thanks, too, to the many other clinicians, educators, scientists and others involved in the treatment and research of mental illness and neurological disorders who have shared so generously of their time and expertise over the decades. Some are here tonight. To all of you, my heartfelt appreciation.

When I began writing about mental health in the 1980s, stigma was one of society’s worst cruelties – a legacy of the days when the mentally ill were shackled in cellars or burned at the stake, a savagery that Butler Hospital replaced with humane care when it was founded in 1844. Stigma remains an obstacle to understanding, acceptance and care – there is still work to be done -- but today, more people view mental illnesses as they do the so-called physical ones, where recovery and fulfilled lives are possible. Which is as it should be.

So I especially want to thank the countless individuals living with mental illness, along with their family members and friends, who have allowed me to tell their stories. Without them, my writing and films would be little more than facts and statistics, important though those are. What power stories have.

These many good people, who courageously let me use their real names and images and publish the most intimate details of their lives, have done more to strike a blow against stigma than anything else I can imagine. I salute and admire them. One by one, they are helping to better the world.