AUSTIN (KXAN) - Growing up in Jones Creek, Texas, along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, Casey McPherson didn't much dwell on the notion of a human being taking his own life.
"I knew nothing about mental health when I was growing up," McPherson said. "I knew nothing about suicide or depression. You hear about it but until it affects you, until it's close to you, you don't pursue the knowledge of any of it. At least I didn't."
That would come to change.
"My father was manic-depressive, bi-polar," said McPherson. "After a series of events, he got off his medication, you know, had some trouble at home, couldn't find a job. A lot of different things sort of compounded on it, but he took his own life when I was eighteen years old. Luckily I was at the age that I'd had a great amount of time with him; my father was a great man, but he died of a mental illness.
It got worse.
"Shortly after that," McPherson said, "my brother followed in his footsteps. My brother took his own life when I was 23. Come to find out, that actually happens; that does happen in families and in close-knit groups of people. If one does it, it kind of begins to set an example for others. It becomes a reality when your family does it, you think, 'Hey, man, maybe this is one of the ways to go,' and it's just not the case. So you have to be really careful about that. We didn't know anything about that. We didn't educate ourselves."
The young man began to crater under the pressure.
"Being so severely affected by it," he said, "I went into my own rampage of mental illness, whether it was drug and alcohol induced and my own depression of wanting to die. I spent maybe five or six years in Austin, playing in a rock band, getting arrested, causing as much trouble as I could, you know. And a lot of it had to do with just the fact that I needed an outlet. I needed a way to kind of create healing in my own life."
McPherson was not alone. According to an analysis of data from the Texas Department of State Health Services, Austin and Travis County saw 723 people commit suicide from 2000 to 2007. At just over 12 suicides per 100,000 residents, that rate is higher than every other major city in the state.
That's when McPherson came across Mental Health America of Texas, a non-profit organization that steers people with mental illness to avenues of hope and health and also lobbies lawmakers for policy changes that make treatment more readily available. It was a great fit. McPherson needed what MHAT had to offer and the organization needed what he had to offer. You see, McPherson is the lead singer and frontman for Alpha Rev, an Austin band that exploded on the national music scene over the last few months. The band was signed by Hollywood Records, the label owned by the Walt Disney Company that also signed Miley Cyrus and the Jonas Brothers. That kind of visibility led MHAT and McPherson to team up for a video public service announcement. Shortly afterward, the singer joined the group's board of directors. Now he and his band are planning a benefit concert for Friday, December 3, at Antone's in downtown Austin. The concert will also feature renowned guitarist Charlie Sexton and country rocker Junior Brown.
Money raised at the benefit concert will get spent under the watchful eye of MHAT executive director Lynn Lasky Clark, a woman who is, herself, no stranger to mental illness.
"My older brother has paranoid schizophrenia and I have other family members with depression and substance abuse," she said. "I've lost several family members to suicide. And so, just from a young child, mental illness has been a part of my life and I grew up with a passion to somehow try to change."
That effort is likely to be harder next year than it has been in quite a while. The ongoing effort to loosen up money to help people with mental illness is heading for a collision with a busted state budget.
I"t's going to be a tough year; it will be a tough year," said Clark. "The last two sessions, the legislature appropriated quite a bit of extra money for public sector mental health care. But this year, serious cuts to mental health care is what we're anticipating. And in a state that's funded so poorly for mental health services, it's going to be really rough for the people who have mental illnesses and their families and others who are trying to take care of them."
That is a specific difficulty barking from the always dark doghouse of stigma, as many lawmakers, like many of the rest of us, are not keeping up with advances in treatment. Clark, though, remains upbeat.
"Not everybody is severely, severely mentally ill, living on the streets as a homeless person," she said. "There are people, our colleagues, classmates, family members, you know, they're fully productive citizens and they may have a mental illness, and you may never know it. So, the more that people talk about it, that reduces the stigma. It's not that many years ago that people didn't think that there was recovery from mental
illness. But there is, with the medications and therapy and just support, people do get better, go back to college, go back to work, you know, go back to taking care of family and it's just beautiful."
McPherson struts through the veil of stigma to bear witness to that notion.
"Eventually, after grief you pick yourself up and you look for the good in it, for what you can do about it," he said. "And after really exploring how our brains work and how the chemicals work in our brains, it's a very real thing and there's very real help for it. Now, after seeing so many people get help from being suicidal or depressive, whether they're schizophrenic, whether they're bipolar, whatever their illness may be, or addicts, whatever, watching people get healthy has been an amazing experience, myself included.
"Most things are treatable these days. There are ways to get help where you can become free of them, you know, and we're very fortunate to live in a day and age where that is the case. When someone shares their experience about something that does have a stigma attached to it, I believe it creates freedom by coming into the light with it. If I have been suicidal or if I have experienced suicide in my life or my family members, there are many other people who have, too, and haven't shared it or haven't talked about it or haven't sought help. For me, knowing that it's okay, gives me the freedom to move forward. So I am 110% behind MHAT because what they do sees real results."
analysis of data - http://media2.kxan.com//PDF/ComparativeSuicideRates.pdf
Mental Health America of Texas - http://www.mhatexas.org/index.html
Alpha Rev - http://www.myspace.com/alpharev
Antone's - http://www.antones.net/
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