For a lot of people struggling with mental illness, it’s hard not to want to try to hide it. Even though millions of Americans deal with some sort of mental health issue at some point in their lives, there is still a lot of shame and stigma attached to it.
Laura Greenstein with the National Alliance on Mental Health wrote in 2017 that “most people who live with mental illness have, at some point, been blamed for their condition. They’ve been called names. Their symptoms have been referred to as ‘a phase’ or something they can control ‘if they only tried.’”
An internationally known artist coming to Augusta this month (which is Mental Health Awareness Month) is working to break down the stigma — by being open about his own diagnoses. Now 53, Cleveland artist Derek Hess was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his 30s. But he learned he was an alcoholic back when he was 18. This means Hess has co-occurring disorders, “the coexistence of both a mental health and a substance-use disorder,” according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Hess’ substance abuse started back in high school.
“I was a big old drunk and drug addict and all that good stuff, and when I turned 18, I continued doing stupid little crimes that I was getting busted for and going to juvenile (detention center),” Hess said.
“And I was given the choice to go to the county or go to rehab. I definitely didn’t want to go to the county jail, so I went to rehab. And I got an education in alcoholism. And so it all made sense then — I understood why I was drinking, you know, I understood what was wrong with me. It took the fun out of drinking, too, because now I knew there was something really wrong with me.”
Later on, in the ’90s, Hess was being treated for depression. But if someone who has bipolar disorder but is diagnosed only as depressed, the treatment for depression will drive out the mania side of the disorder. It wasn’t until Hess told his doctor he was acting “crazy” and told him all the stuff he was doing that the doctor said, “By God, Derek, I think you’re bipolar.”
Hess looks back on his life now and can see evidence of being bipolar way before his diagnosis.
“There were times definitely when I had the mania going on, which I just thought was being happy and being productive,” he said. “Whereas I look back now and it’s like, you know, I’m not getting a lot of sleep, I was talking too fast — all the typical bipolar symptoms I was demonstrating. So yeah, that was probably in my 20s, so I’d been bipolar for a bit before I was diagnosed, definitely.”
The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports that one in 25 American adults is living with a serious mental health condition like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or long-term recurring major depression. (One in five American adults experiences some form of mental illness in any given year, which can include anxiety and depression.)
At first, Hess was afraid to be open about his new diagnosis. When he thought he was only depressed, he said it felt socially acceptable to tell people that.
“And then I got diagnosed as bipolar, and (my doctor) was like, ‘Well, why don’t you tell people that?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, no, no, no! It’s not cool to be bipolar. That’s crazy. You can be depressed — that’s socially acceptable. And a few years after that, I realized this is what I am, so I’m not gonna hide behind it. “
“So, I’m bipolar. And the more I talk about it, the more I came across people who were the same and didn’t feel comfortable admitting it, or being open about it, so that’s how that worked.”
Hess has been hospitalized for his disorders more than once, but his first time in a behavioral health hospital wasn’t his own choice.
“I was in my alcoholism, I was drinking, and I was really bad,” Hess said. “And I went to see my psychiatrist one day at noon, and she was like, ‘Well, have you been drinking?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, I’ve been drinking; I’m gonna be sick if I don’t drink.’ I was drinking that much that, where I had to drink, so I wouldn’t get into DT (delirium tremens) and be sick. And she was like, ‘Well, are you suicidal?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, hell yeah, I’m suicidal!’ And I didn’t really have a plan, but I was kind of in that mind frame that I’m definitely not happy. And that was it! I just had to say the word ‘suicidal’ to a psychiatrist; they’re gonna pink-slip your ass and have you taken away, and that’s what they did.”
He said since then, though, he actually enjoys being hospitalized, when he’s had to resort to that.
“I liked it, man, when I was hospitalized… I didn’t have to deal with anything, they gave me my meds on time, you could watch TV, I could wear my pajamas all the time,” he said.
In spite of all Hess’ struggles, he is an internationally known artist who has done all kinds of works drawn in pen and ink, sometimes incorporating pencils, acrylics and crayons. He also does collage work and silk screens.
During his time booking bands for concerts back in the early ’90s, he was discovered as a talented concert poster artist, and he went on to create posters for bands like Pantera, Thursday, Pink Floyd and Pearl Jam. His website bio also says he “has created CD covers for bands like Motion City Soundtrack and Unearth. He has also been featured on television show and in magazines — MTV, Fuse, VH1, Alternative Press and Juxtapose as well as many others.”
Hess is going on a book signing tour and will be in Augusta at 600 Broad from 6:30 to 10 p.m. May 12. During the event, a screening of “Forced Perspective” (a documentary about Hess) will take place at 7 p.m., with a Q&A at 8:30 p.m. and a book signing from 9 to 10 p.m. Hess’ book is called “31 Days in May” — it came about after Hess posted daily images to his social media outlets in May 2017 in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. The art showcased his ongoing battle with dual diagnosis, and it was turned into the book.
As part of Hess’ tour, each venue will donate to a local charity of their choice. The venue 600 Broad has chosen the Lighthouse Care Center of Augusta.
“They’re a behavioral mental health hospital that focuses on children under the age of 18,” said Regina Brejda with 4P Studios. “They are a for-profit entity, so what we’re donating to is the children’s store that’s inside of the facility, and basically the long-term care patients that are there are rewarded for good behavior by being given what they call Lighthouse Bucks. They’re able to spend that cash in the children’s store to buy new clothes or toiletries, or things that they just need… and books and other materials that I think can help make their stay a little more comfortable. And then, hopefully having that money come from the community as well is showing them that we believe in their healing.”
A suggested $5 donation will be collected at the Hess appearance May 12. However, because of the nature of the event, anyone can show up for free. Brejda said Hess was in Augusta about six years ago, and people from cities across the region traveled to see him back then.
Hess likened having mental illness and addiction to having any other kind of illness.
“It’s something that I have; it’s something that people have,” he said. “It’s like diabetes — people have diabetes, people have cancer. People have things. Everybody’s got something, you know? And you don’t shame people about being diabetic or having cancer. So you shouldn’t really judge and shame people for being mentally ill; it’s a sickness, that’s ill. ‘Illness.’ So that’s what I kind of want people to understand, that’s why I’m doing the book and being open about it. It’s drawing back the curtains and exposing it, that this is not the end of the world, that it can be treated.”
Derek Hess Book Signing and Film Screening
6:30 to 10 p.m. Saturday, May 12
Free, with suggested $5 donation to support Lighthouse Care Center of Augusta. Light refreshments included.
Visit facebook.com/events/2010495022543520 or derekhess.com, or call 706-267-6724 or 706-814-6641. Find out more about substance abuse and mental health by visiting samhsa.gov.
9 WAYS TO FIGHT MENTAL HEALTH STIGMA
This list was published by the National Alliance on Mental Health in October 2017. Read more at nami.org.
- Talk openly about mental health: “I fight stigma by talking about what it is like to have bipolar disorder and PTSD on Facebook. Even if this helps just one person, it is worth it for me.” — Angela Christie Roach Taylor
- Educate yourself and others: “I take every opportunity to educate people and share my personal story and struggles with mental illness. It doesn’t matter where I am, if I over-hear a conversation or a rude remark being made about mental illness, or anything regarding a similar subject, I always try to use that as a learning opportunity and gently intervene and kindly express how this makes me feel, and how we need to stop this because it only adds to the stigma.” — Sara Bean
- Be conscious of language: “I fight stigma by reminding people that their language matters. It is so easy to refrain from using mental health conditions as adjectives and in my experience, most people are willing to replace their usage of it with something else if I explain why their language is problematic.” — Helmi Henkin
- Encourage equality between physical and mental illness: “I find that when people understand the true facts of what a mental illness is, being a disease, they think twice about making comments. I also remind them that they wouldn’t make fun of someone with diabetes, heart disease or cancer.” — Megan Dotson
- Show compassion for those with mental illness: “I offer free hugs to people living outdoors, and sit right there and talk with them about their lives. I do this in public, and model compassion for others. Since so many of our homeless population are also struggling with mental illness, the simple act of showing affection can make their day but also remind passersby of something so easily forgotten: the humanity of those who are suffering.” — Rachel Wagner
- Choose empowerment over shame: “I fight stigma by choosing to live an empowered life. To me, that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to dictate how I view myself or how I feel about myself.” — Val Fletcher
- Be honest about treatment: “I fight stigma by saying that I see a therapist and a psychiatrist. Why can people say they have an appointment with their primary care doctor without fear of being judged, but this lack of fear does not apply when it comes to mental health professionals?” —— Ysabel Garcia
- Let the media know when they’re being stigmatizing: “If I watch a program on TV that has any negative comments, story lines or characters with a mental illness, I write to the broadcasting company and to the program itself. If Facebook has any stories where people make ignorant comments about mental health, then I write back and fill them in on my son’s journey with schizoaffective disorder.” — Kathy Smith
- Don’t harbor self-stigma: “I fight stigma by not having stigma for myself — not hiding from this world in shame, but being a productive member of society. I volunteer at church, have friends, and I’m a peer mentor and a mom. I take my treatment seriously. I’m purpose driven and want to show others they can live a meaningful life even while battling (mental illness).” — Jamie Brown