With the holiday’s only a month or so away, I recall a true story I wrote about several years ago in this publication. It began with, “Let me tell you a story about a simple handshake that saved the life of a man from New York suffering with mental illness.”
The year was 1987 and he was 38 years old. He had always been a happy and productive person throughout his entire life. He had earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work and worked for many years in nonprofit organizations that were helping people in the community.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, he began to experience severe anxiety and depression. His mother had recently lost a heroic battle with cancer a few years before, and he had been separated from his 8-year-old son due to a recent divorce.
In a matter of weeks, he was in the throes of a most severe form of depression that would last 10 years. His illness caused him to endure such despair and hopelessness that he tried to end his own life on several occasions.
He watched in horror as his life slipped away from him, and was further tormented that his young son – the love of his life – was growing up under the shadow of his illness. In the end, he was left homeless and destitute. During his last inpatient hospitalization before his health insurance ended, he was offered Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT) as a last chance to save him from a most horrible end – being sent to a dark ward at a nearby state hospital. Miraculously, the ECT worked in his case, and over the coming months he felt the dark curtain of his depression lifting.
It was now 1997 and he was living in supportive housing and attending outpatient treatment. To fill the other lonely hours of his day he began attending a newly opened consumer-run drop-in center. He hoped that by keeping busy and sharing the comradery of others would help set him on the path to recovery.
One day at the drop-in center, Jim, the director, was giving a tour of the facility to a supporter who happened to be a well-known local banker. Seeing the two men dressed in business suits walking through the center reminded him of how he used to dress and collaborate with colleagues and community leaders before he became ill. He was a taken aback and a bit embarrassed when the director and banker came over to where he was sitting.
The banker extended his arm and our recovering man stood up and shook the outstretched hand. The banker smiled at him, patted him on the shoulder, and told him, “Keep up the good work.”
It was a simple gesture, but that handshake had a profound and lasting impact. For many years after that day, the man in recovery often referred to that kind banker and his reassuring handshake. “It made me feel like things were going to be OK and I would finally get well again.”
You see, that man was me. With the kind encouragement of that banker and the many other people I met along the path of my recovery, I was inspired to create this publication in 1999. Through the following years, in what has seemed like an instant, I was able to rebuild my life. I just celebrated my 65th birthday in July, and this publication has been in existence now for over 16 years !!
I didn’t understand it at the time, but it turns out that it was my desire to help others that was the key to helping myself get better. I wanted to find a way to provide education, resources and hope to people who were lost and struggling (as I had been) with mental illness.
My son David, who was inspired by my recovery and vision to help others joined me as my Associate Director in 2008 to publish Autism Spectrum News—now a leading publication helping thousands of families and individuals cope with the challenges of autism spectrum disorders. Today, Behavioral Health News and Autism Spectrum News reach over 160,000 hardcopy readers across New York State and beyond. Our plans to enhance our online delivery and presence has the potential to expand our educational mission to numbers even beyond our greatest expectations.
This Holiday Season, we need your support more than ever before. We are a small organization with a vital mission. Please look for our Annual Fall Appeal letter that will be arriving in the coming weeks – take a moment and consider us in your annual giving plans. You can also make a donation directly on our website at: www.mhnews.org/donate.htm.
Please help us to continue providing hope to people with mental illness, substance use, and autism spectrum disorders. Your tax-deductible contribution to Behavioral Health News and Autism Spectrum News this holiday season will be a meaningful and heartfelt “Handshake of Hope” to someone out there who is lost and alone right now. We need to reach more people like that, shake their hand, and give them the encouragement they need to move forward and improve their lives. As simple as a Handshake may seem, it has been proven to save a life and start something wonderful.