“Alcohol and cocaine were a big thing for me in high school,” says Loeryna Darcus. “It was just something to do, something that was fun. The addiction addiction—when I realized I couldn’t stop or questioned my ability to function—was when I got pregnant the second time.”
Her voice remains steady and matter-of-fact, bordering on upbeat, despite speaking about her past problems. She recounts her experimentation with drugs in high school, how her ex-husband got her off cocaine only to get her addicted to methamphetamine later, how deeply she’s hurt friends and family because of her addiction. “I’ve never denied that I had a drug problem,” Darcus states. “It was an escape for me. I was at the point, where if I was going to get beat up by my ex-husband, get cheated on, I’d rather be high. I didn’t realize at that moment that the drugs didn’t really help—they didn’t really numb. Once I was high, I was still angry and disgusted by the situation I was in.”
It took a while for Darcus to get clean; although she had attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings in the past, she remained in and out of both drugs and abusive relationships. It wasn’t until she arrived at Didi Hirsch’s Via Avanta Residential Center that she finally understood the root of her problems. “I was learning about the disease of addiction and the mental health part of it,” shares Darcus. “It was so much easier for me to understand and have more openness—it’s helped me not be so judgmental when I’m speaking with other people.”
At first, Darcus was resistant to the group sessions; she was reluctant to engage with others and preferred to keep things bottled up. “I went into the program—I had never been so scared in my life,” she says. “I was being angry, very frustrated. Listening to these stories [from other Via Avanta patients] made me want to talk about my stuff, without me wanting to. I was fighting with myself because I didn’t want to talk about it.”
Speaking candidly about mental illness is taboo in many cultures—in some, the language for it doesn’t even exist. Shawn Amos, a former Didi Hirsch board member, relates his experience of growing up with a mentally ill mother. “My mother suffered from schizoaffective disorder, which is a mix of schizophrenia and bipolar,” he says. “There was a lot of denial in the ‘70s and ‘80s. She would get hospitalized, and they would use these euphemisms, ‘Oh, she’s going off,’ ‘she’s having a breakdown,’ ‘she’s mentally exhausted.’ I think, to the day she committed suicide, I never knew what she had.”
Part of that refusal to acknowledge mental disorders arises from the fact that people tend to fear the unknown. “Whenever people don’t understand something and don’t know how to fix it, they’re very afraid of it,” says Dr. Kita Curry, CEO of Didi Hirsch. “With that stigma comes a sense that those with mental illness are ‘less’ than other people, that what you have diminishes you, so no one wants people to know things that mean they’re less.”
“My mother was a black woman at the peak of the Civil Rights movement,” adds Amos. “It’s hard enough being a woman, it’s hard enough being black, and then on top of this you’ve got this illness—how many ways do you want to cast yourself as an outsider? We don’t make it easy for people to stand up and say, ‘I’m not like everyone else.’”
With the “Erasing the Stigma” campaign, Curry and Didi Hirsch hope to create a healthy and open dialogue about the realities of mental illness. One in four people in the world will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives, and 450 million people are afflicted at any one time. Mental disorders can range in severity from schizophrenia to social anxiety, yet people tend to stereotype mental illness only as something violent and untreatable. “We only hear about mental illness when it’s negative because the press—everybody—likes drama,” believes Curry. “That’s why our ‘Erase the Stigma’ efforts are so important. You erase the stigma by making it clear to people that most of us will have a mental health disorder at some point in our lives—but there is treatment that is affective, and people get better.”
Although it seems cliché, the first step to creating a dialogue is simply getting people to open up about their experiences. Recounting her experience at Via Avanta, Darcus marvels at the moment she realized she wasn’t alone in her struggles: “Having the counselors be from the same side of the street as I am, who had actually been through the stuff and can relate to me, it was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m not the only one who has gone through this.’”
"You erase the stigma by making it clear to people that most of us will have a mental health disorder at some point in our lives—but there is treatment that is affective, and people get better."
“I remember in the wake of my mother’s suicide, I got referred to a suicide survivors group—a support group of people who have had relatives commit suicide,” recalls Amos. “I was sort of quietly ashamed, presumed that I was the only one who had been through this—then to hear all these stories of people’s childhoods and adulthoods, what they had been exposed to living with a mentally ill parent, spouse or relative who ended up taking their lives—I realized there was a community here.”
“Let’s take breast cancer—when I was in high school, no one even said the word ‘breast,’” Curry jokes. “Now we talk about breast cancer. We tell people if it runs in the family, make sure to get mammograms, to do our self-exams—and we talk about treatment. But we haven’t reached that point with mental illness.”
Although it’s still considered an unacceptable topic, the conversation around mental health is expanding. Celebrities like Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato have opened up about anxiety and eating disorders to legions of praise. Still, celebrities have an aura of unreality about them, a sense that their mental disorders are just the price of fame. “The most effective way is for people to discover that, among their coworkers, neighbors, nieces, teachers, etc., are lots of people who are struggling with mental illness,” says Curry.
A greater understanding of mental illness and how to treat it can also turn disorders into a positive force. “My daughter is 16 and has OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder],” shares Amos. “Because the stigma is slowly being erased, she’s been able to get the kind of care that my mother couldn’t receive. Even at this young age, she’s already having this conversation about what kinds of careers are going to be best for her, where she can take advantage of her OCD. That’s amazing for someone to think about how their illness can direct their lives in a positive way vs. all the ways it could possibly limit them.”
“November of 2009, I tried to commit suicide,” Darcus says in that same matter-of-fact tone. “My daughter was nine at the time and basically saved my life. She walked eight blocks to the nearest payphone because my ex-husband always took the house phone when he went away, and called my father…then, while I was in the Didi Hirsch program, my daughter tried to commit suicide and became a cutter. The hospital I went to for trying to commit suicide, she went to for the same reason.”
Every year, over 44,000 Americans die by suicide; for every one suicide, there are 25 attempts. “When people feel hopeless and they’re in a situation they have no control over—that’s very, very stressful,” says Curry. That stress could lead to or exacerbate existing mental disorders that would cause a person to consider or attempt suicide. “That’s why it’s so important to help people have a sense of their own ability to make changes that will make them safer,” she points out.
“Didi Hirsch helped me get my soul back,” Darcus says, her voice cracking slightly. “They gave me the tools to get my life back. My tools might not be the same one for the next person, but those tools, I apply them with my daughter, or with her friends. It works. I catch myself hearing my daughter talking about it over the phone, or giving advice—it does work.”
There is a pause before she continues. “I give myself credit, because I’ve never done that before,” Darcus says. “I’ve come a long way—and I still have a long way to go—but I’m able to live. I love me. I’ve never trusted myself, but now I trust anything that I do.”
If you or someone you know suffers from suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for help.