Thursday, October 27, 2011


The following is an article I wrote for the Saratoga Citizen's Committee for Mental Health's biannual newsletter. After speaking at the Saratoga County Aging and Disability Network meeting, I was asked to summarize my experience (I've served as a SCCCMH board member for three years):

As an advocate for mental health awareness, I'm appreciative of any opportunity that comes my way. Having been involved with the Saratoga Community Citizen's Committee for Mental Health for three years, I'm able to advocate on a local level. Thanks to our dedicated president, Peggy Lounsbury, I was selected to speak at the Saratoga County Aging and Disability Network meeting (spring 2011). Their mission, “To promote community awareness of the programs and services available to Saratoga County residents who are aging and/or disabled, and their caregivers, so as to better meet the needs of these ever increasing populations.” But I had to ask the question. How could a mental health advocate contribute to their mission? It was an eye opening experience, to say the least. My view of recovery was reinforced. My brother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia over five years ago. Society needs to understand that the act of overcoming this type of disability is what makes my brother (along with many others) a true inspiration.

Most people develop mental illness during their 20's-30's. My speech would focus on how disability impacts the life of a rather unassuming, young adult. I also described to the group how sudden onset of this disease can impact an entire family.

My brother's first brush with psychosis occurred while studying abroad, during his last semester of college. Up until that point, his future was bright. He could do almost anything he set his mind to. With four sisters, my brother was the last male to carry on the family name. To say that we had expectations would be an understatement. Not only was he highly intelligent, but extremely kind to others. We still ask ourselves, did we miss the warning signs? Could we have prevented this from happening? It took a long time to accept reality. In the end, we came to realize that no one could predict my brother's fate.

I pointed out that this type of disability did not result from a gradual progression. For many, an acute psychotic break is the equivalent to hitting a brick wall. Reality is lost or at the very least, left hanging by a thread. How could such a delightful young man be robbed of the most promising chapter in his life? How can a 21 year old be forced to live on Medicaid and SSI? My empathy has always run very deep. I still recall a time when my brother refused to take a volunteer position at the local vet. He was embarrassed. He said, "what will they say when they see I have a BS degree in political science?" My heart sank. It must be very difficult to swallow your pride, time and time again.

A decrease in normal function has so much to do with what are called negative symptoms. "They commonly include flat or blunted affect and emotion, poverty of speech (alogia), inability to experience pleasure (anhedonia), lack of desire to form relationships (asociality), and lack of motivation (avolition). Research suggests that negative symptoms contribute more to poor quality of life, functional disability, and the burden on others than do positive symptoms." (

There are very few illnesses which decrease overall function at such a young age. In order to reinforce this message, I played an 8 minute video which illustrates the road to recovery, with the help of my artwork. The negative portrayal of mental illness in the media only reinforces shame and fear. Could you imagine being silenced by stigma? All while you battle an invisible, yet consuming disability. The courage required to reach recovery is unlike anything I've ever seen.

When my presentation ended, I was surprised by the applause, and the questions. I thank Peggy and the Saratoga County Aging and Disability Network for allowing me to speak about a topic that is very close to my heart. They have given me hope that, with a little inspiration, society can embrace those who are less fortunate. Now, more than ever, I am convinced that self expression could make this world a better place, and heal a sister who was overcome with grief. My brother may be viewed as disabled but he has enabled so many to replace fear with empathy and shame with courage.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Politics have forever been an enigma in my mind. That was until I came face to face with severe mental illness within my family. There is simply no way around government when it comes to the services and programs offered for those with mental illness. "Medicaid currently pays for about half of all public mental health services in the U.S. but Congress is threatening to slash funding by billions." That statement alone drove me to contact US senators and Representatives to vent my frustrations. Budget cuts continue to caused so many programs to suffer. In a world where talk is cheap, I couldn't sit back and get angry. I did something. Below is a letter I received from NY Congressman Chris Gibson. Make your voice heard!

July 20, 2011

Dear Mrs. Osterhout,

Thank you for contacting me regarding the debt limit and its impact on entitlement spending. It is good to hear from you.

The President has asked Congress to increase the statutory debt limit from $14.294 trillion to $16.7 trillion. Simply put, this will give the federal government the authority to borrow more. It is important to note that an increase in the debt ceiling is not an increase in new spending. We have already spent this money, and now it is our responsibility to pay for the debt we have accrued. Just as individuals make mortgage payments to pay off the debt on their homes, the government must make payments to pay off its debt. I believe all Americans have an obligation to contribute funds to cover the federal government's expenses, which is why I voted for a budget proposal that would close tax loopholes and ensure individuals and corporations alike are paying their fair share.

One of the reasons I came to Washington was to combat wasteful spending and the idea that taxpayers' pockets can be treated as endless coffers. That being said, failure to eventually raise the debt ceiling will result in the default of the federal government due to the inability of the Department of Treasury to service our debt payments. In addition, defaulting would likely lead to an increase in interest on our debt, which would, in turn, further increase our massive debt and deficit. Despite my extreme disappointment with the state of our nation's fiscal status, I recognize the need to eventually increase the debt ceiling. However, I am unwilling to vote for such an increase unless it is coupled with significant spending reductions and structural reforms that prove to the American people that Congress is ready to be a responsible caretaker of their tax dollars.

While I am eager to find ways to reduce federal spending, I do not believe Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid cuts to current beneficiaries should be a part of negotiations regarding the debt ceiling increase. I am, and always have been, a strong proponent of these programs. My family, friends and neighbors are recipients, and I understand fully how many folks rely on these benefits to subsist. Those currently receiving benefits have paid into these programs their whole lives with the promise of future benefits. If the government fails to provide those benefits in full, it would be reneging on its promise.

Thus, I was please to support H.R. 2560, the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act, which raised the nation's debt limit when combined with $111 billion in immediate spending cuts, mandatory caps on spending over the next decade tied to gross domestic product (GDP) levels, and the passage of a balanced budget amendment. Our nation is at a crossroads and so far the President and Congress have failed to come to an agreement on how we can increase our debt limit while ensuring we make responsible choices for our future. It became necessary for the House to act and the Cut, Cap, and Balance Act passed the House by a vote of 234-190 on July 19, 2011. Importantly, it makes absolutely no changes to Medicare, Social Security, or Veterans Benefits, and leave open the option of significant cuts in defense spending in future years to bring our budget into balance.

Moving forward, our nation's entitlement programs are facing a severe funding crisis. I look forward to working with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reform these programs and ensure their long-term solvency. Medicare and Social Security, along with Medicaid, made up almost 50 percent of all mandatory spending in Fiscal Year 2010, and this share is projected to continue to rise until 2037, when the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) expects complete insolvency not only in these three programs, but also in the whole federal government due to their complete takeover of all spending.

Although we face significant challenges, if we make the right choices, our best days are still in front of us. We need pro-growth, fiscally responsible policies that facilitate job creation and balanced budgets while protecting Medicare and Social Security. As your representative, I will continue to fight for these priorities in Congress.

Thank you again for contacting me with your thoughts, it is always good to hear from my constituents. Your input helps me make informed policy decisions. Please do not hesitate to inform me of your concerns in the future through my website or over the phone at (202) 225-5614.

Chris Gibson
Member of Congress

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Every so often I receive email from art students. Though I never intended to inspire anyone artistically with the Gaining Insight campaign, it does give my work a little more purpose. Creating the campaign was simply a visceral response to the flurry of emotion I experienced when my brother first became sick. I also never expected to receive email from those who are silenced by stigma or from family members who floundering in sea of emotion. Thank you all for seeing a need to educate others about a topic, most often, swept under the rug. We can all inspire empathy and courage by speaking out. The following is from an art student in the UK:

" Hello, My name is _ and I am currently studying A level art at Colston's in Bristol, UK. I am really interested in the paintings you have created on gaining insight and I especially love the way in which you blend the colours into each other. In your painting Psychosis, I really like how the face is blended into the trouser leg, as if it is a part of him. Also your use of colour and painting technique is beautiful and very inspiring. For my project I am looking at schizophrenia and mental illness and I would really love to ask you some questions if you have some time. I have to look at one particular artist for the project and I am extremely excited to use you as my inspiration for my work. I hope to hear back from you,"

Monday, February 14, 2011

After reading a few insightful articles (posted by fellow advocate-Bob) I had this nagging feeling to delve into a very complex topic: the rise of mentally ill inmates in prison. In fact, this statistic has quadrupled in the past 6 years alone. Some chilling facts:

• 70% of jail inmates with mental illness are there for NONVIOLENT offenses.
• More than 16% of jail inmates have mental illness (at the end of 2000, nearly 1 million individuals with mental illness were in the criminal justice system).

To learn more about the facts above, check out this link. What's even more shocking is how many inmates are not receiving proper treatment for the severe mental disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression. I will use an empathetic example to put this into perspective. Imagine a loved one who has or had a very serious illness (of any kind). Now imagine if your loved one was forced into a cell with no chance of treatment. This would further intensify the illness and at times lead to death.

The following link details
10 of the Most Misunderstood Mental Health Disorders. "Even though doctors and researchers have made huge strides in their understanding and treatment of mental health disorders, there is still much more to be learned and shared about these complex conditions." (Thank you Christine for the previous link) This lack of understanding infiltrates the prison system thus causing a very large problem that sucks our tax paying dollars down the drain. My fellow advocate, Bob, had a very novel concept, to rethink the prison system all together and put much more money into the mental health system (which right now, has funding cut left and right). Since deinstitutionalization, we NEED a mental health system that truly cares about those affected instead of viewing them as flawed, expendable individuals.

The following addresses mental health funding cuts in more detail. "The National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors estimates that at least $2.1 billion has been cut from state mental health budgets in the last three fiscal years. Adult day treatment centers have been shuttered; subsidies for outpatient counseling, medications and family support services have dried up; case managers have been laid off; and more than 4,000 beds in psychiatric hospitals have closed, according to Michael J. Fitzpatrick, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The fiscal squeeze has highlighted the inadequacy of community services to accommodate deinstitutionalization, and waiting lists have grown steadily in many states." Learn more here.

I want you to put yourself in the position of prisoner when reading the following. "Yet across the nation, many prison mental health services are woefully deficient, crippled by understaffing, insufficient facilities, and limited programs. All too often seriously ill prisoners receive little or no meaningful treatment. They are neglected, accused of malingering, treated as disciplinary problems. Without the necessary care, mentally ill prisoners suffer painful symptoms and their conditions can deteriorate. They are afflicted with delusions and hallucinations, debilitating fears, extreme and uncontrollable mood swings. They huddle silently in their cells, mumble incoherently, or yell incessantly. They refuse to obey orders or lash out without apparent provocation. They beat their heads against cell walls, smear themselves with feces, self-mutilate, and commit suicide...Prisons were never intended as facilities for the mentally ill, yet that is one of their primary roles today. Many of the men and women who cannot get mental health treatment in the community are swept into the criminal justice system after they commit a crime. In the United States, there are three times more mentally ill people in prisons than in mental health hospitals..." Learn more here.

And finally, a very well written paper by a Harvard student addressing the violation of basic civil rights of the imprisoned mentally ill.

I actually started to tear up as I read some of these articles because I think of the millions who DID NOT ask to be burdened with severe, debilitating illness yet, they are forced to pay for it. I will not stop until there is understanding, even if it takes an entire lifetime before I see progress. Some say I have too much empathy but how could you not be haunted by the blatant disregard for human life? Those who will spend 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year trying to keep a chronic illness under control, with little support from the general public. I can tell you that a person with severe mental illness will endure and conquer more in a lifetime in order to gain back any self respect or dignity that he/she once had. We are looking at one of the oldest stigmas known to man and something has to change. Thank you!

Sunday, January 30, 2011

I can not begin to describe the excitement I am feeling after receiving some fantastic news. I am a board member on the Saratoga Community Citizen's Committee for Mental Health. Being involved with my community has been so rewarding. I have met so many people who have contributed their time and expertise in the realm of mental health. The president of our board has made it possible for me to connect with local school superintendents so I can discuss my plans to educate high school students about the stigma surrounding mental illness. I have envisioned this for a long time but now it is finally happening. I have to brainstorm my presentation but thankfully I have so much to show them. I have worked really hard during the past 5 years to create film/art/design in attempt to replace shame with courage and fear with empathy. If I can help one student detect mental illness in his/her self, friend, mother, father, sibling, college roommate then I have done my job. People tell me that mental illness has to hit close to home in order to fully understand it, but I disagree. Most mental illness goes undiagnosed (1/4 people will experience a mental health issue in their lifetime). We have a chance to inspire hope with the next generation. I can't wait to keep you all posted on my progress. Wish me luck!!!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

As a mother with a history of mental illness in the family, it's only natural to wonder why these illnesses develop. A lot of my beliefs are based on science/facts. I truly believe that we can prevent disease with knowledge, nutrition and nurturing. I may be neurotic about a lot of things but being pregnant places a lot of responsibility on the mother. When it comes to having a genetic link to mental illness is your family, you must make sure you are getting enough vitamin D, DHA and (on the horizon) choline. All beneficial to building a healthy fetal brain. You must also understand how environment plays a part in developing the illness. I think that a lot of the choices we make can trigger all sorts of outcomes. I encourage you to read this very interesting article about clues to preventing schizophrenia. Fascinating!

Sunday, January 2, 2011


Every so often a movie comes along and captures mental illness in its most honest and realistic form (something I plan to do with my own documentary). It is necessary for the public to understand the reality of mental illness in order to eliminate stereotypes/discrimination. However, for every one true film their are countless others that hinder recovery and understanding. By fueling stigma through media, we create more damage than entertainment. Below are two trailers that I hope will urge you to watch each film in their entirety. Both films are about two artists with mental illness: The Devil and Daniel Johnston and My name is Alan and I Paint Pictures. I am grateful for the courageous individuals who not only fight a battle from within but try to combat stigma by inspiring hope. May their strength inspire others to come forward and share their own story. (Pretty ironic that Cobain is wearing a Daniel Johnston shirt in photo below since both may have/had bipolar disorder.)