Finding hope

Sometimes, the person you love more than anything and think you know better than anyone can be hiding a dark secret.

For Northwest author Sheila Hamilton, it was her first husband, David. For years, he suffered from bipolar disorder but hid it from the world. After medications that worsened his condition, commitment to a psychiatric ward and several suicide attempts, he died by suicide in December 2006.

Hamilton says she was unaware of the extent of his illness until after his death.

A journalist, Hamilton coped the way she knew best. She began researching his condition and delving deeper into the mental health system and how suicide impacts society.

She came to Washougal High School last week to talk to students about what led to her husband’s death, the lessons she learned from it, and how to help others who are suffering.

In her memoir, “All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness,” she discusses the stigma that is attached to mental illness.

“The myth persists that mental illness is a character flaw,” she writes. “It is my hope that one day disorders of the brain will be treated with as much care, compassion, and tenacity as diseases of any other organs in our bodies.”

She also noted that last year alone, there were 43,000 deaths by suicide, and that is it now the second leading cause of death among 15 to 24 year olds.

“For every death, there are 25 attempts,” Hamilton said. “If you count all of the family members and friends impacted by each person’s death, it is staggering. I wanted to write about this topic because it impacts us all.”

Hamilton advocates for a holistic approach to mental health treatment and against what she believes is the excessive prescription of psychotropic drugs.

“Mindfulness and meditation get a bad rap but they can help you challenge the negative ways you see yourself,” she told the students. “Sleep is also crucial, and exercise has been found to be just as effective, if not more, than SSRIs.”

Hamilton believes awareness is crucial in diagnosing and treating mental illness.

“Sometimes, you don’t know something is wrong because you think the person is just acting like a real A-hole,” she said. “People can become impatient and irrational, and the smallest things, like traffic or bright lights, can set them off. In my husband’s case, he stopped going to work, then he began exploding in anger in front of our daughter, who was 9 years old. At that point, I thought my marriage was over because I didn’t want her to grow up in a home like that. He told me that he was fine, and it was me who was the problem. I missed the fact that he was very, very ill.”

After the assembly concluded, the students were given an opportunity to ask questions. These included where to go for help if a friend is suicidal, options available for seeking help, and how long it takes to recover from the suicide of a loved one.

Hamilton also met with students for one-on-one conversations and book signing.

Tera Yano, child and family therapist, and Denise Livingston, prevention-intervention specialist, were also on hand to answer questions and lend support.

Hamilton’s visit came through an association with WHS teacher Jim Reed, and an invitation by the WHS Keepers of the Library club.

“Her experience is relevant for students today,” Reed said. “Her intimate story fits together with our class discussions on mental illness and societal issues surrounding the disease such as incarceration and health care.”