Not one – but five – amazing folks are set to receive this year’s Daniel Moreno Recovery Award for their successful efforts in coping with mental illness.
The award is named after the son of Susan Moreno, development director, educator/presenter for National Alliance on Mental Illness of Southern Arizona (NAMISA) and blogger for TC.com’s Grey Matters. Daniel Moreno’s mental illness led him to suicide in 2005.
This year’s ceremony is 6 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 2, at the Skyline Country Club, 5200 E. St. Andrews Dr., and the recipients are:
George Leon –
Acceptance is George Leon’s key to living with his diagnosis of schizophrenia – a far cry from the denial he harbored when he first heard voices at age 23.
“He thought that hearing voices was normal and that everybody heard them,” wrote his friends William and Derry Dean in their nomination form.
Leon had been chief warrant officer in the U.S. Navy aboard an aircraft carrier when the voices came. The episode landed him in the hospital and an assignment to the Naval Reserves. Although in denial, Leon was able to function, even earning Officer of the Year in 1996 for his work with Naval cadets.
It took three more hospitalizations for Leon to finally accept his diagnosis – and move on.
He has since become a peer mentor at NAMISA, is ready to teach the first peer-to-peer class at the Veteran Affairs Medical Center and has done a number of video presentations. His proudest achievement was making a video about the positive effects of the antipsychotic drug Olanzapine after participating in University of Arizona study.
The video made it possible for the FDA to approve the drug. Family is also big with Leon, as are yoga, musical, stress and calming classes. He is coordinator for the In Our Own Voice (IOOV) program which offers video presentations to the community.
“Accept things the way they are, change your attitude to get into recovery and never give up hope,” Leon said.
Kathy Lewis –
Now a well-loved and successful case aide and certified recovery support specialist at La Frontera Center, not many may know that Kathy Lewis spent 10 years wanting to die.
“From 1995 through March 2005 I was negative, unsociable, had constant worry and suicidal ideation. I thought of a therapist or psychiatrist but, in my mind, that was for ‘crazy’ people,” she said.
This slump led to two suicide attempts. “When the police arrived on my first attempt,” she said, “I told them ‘just take me to the loony bin and throw away the key.’”
Her second attempt landed her into a psychiatric health facility.
“It was then when I realized I was meant to live – don’t know why, but I had to live.”
Dozens, if not hundreds, of folks are glad she did.
“Her journey to recovery has led her to become a true advocate for persons with mental illness,” wrote her nominator and La Frontera coworker Karen Chatfield. “She is committed to providing support for others on that same journey.”
Lewis achieves this by providing so many services for the clients – from driving them to scheduled appointment to delivering food boxes. She has even been known to help people take out their trash. “It’s just one of the many ways in which she goes above and beyond the call of duty,” Chatfield said.
Lewis also coordinates the publication of La Frontera’s quarterly newsletter, which comes stocked with information, resources, success stories – and even poetry and creative writing.
“I love my job,” Lewis said. “I never had a job that I loved until I started working in the mental health field. I love helping people and seeing them progress in their recovery.”
Haydee Meza –
Many who meet Haydee Meza, 52, are taken by her bubbly, upbeat personality – and would never guess she struggles with depression.
The black cloud of doom descended about two years ago, shortly after her move from Mexico to Arizona.
“I felt sad, lonely, worried and always had negative thoughts,” Meza said. “I would just stay at home watching TV. I wouldn’t take showers or change my clothes. I was always crying and complaining about life. It got the point where my family couldn’t stand me anymore.”
Meza then discovered NAMISA – and the road to her recovery.
Meza, who volunteers for the organization, has been most instrumental in helping to spread the recovery message to the Hispanic community, where mental illness is largely stigmatized and rarely discussed. Meza is a peer-to-peer mentor and IOOV presenter.
“She instantly makes those who connect with NAMI feel that they are part of the NAMI family,” wrote Meza’s nominator, NAMI employee Rebecca Garfunkel. “She cares about people’s welfare.”
Meza’s proudest achievement is now being able to live life.
“I’m so proud that I can take control of my life again,” she said, “and live well even with my mental illness.”
Susan Rasmussen –
Life began as one big trauma for Susan Rasmussen, 49, who was ritually abused from the age of 4. The abuse included two years of molestation from her dad and uncle, the former who died when she was 8. Another male relative continued her molestation for four years when she turned 14.
Rasmussen tried to dull the depression and anxiety through self-mutilation and four suicide attempts, one of which left her in a coma for four days. She was hospitalized at least 10 times by the time she was 20.
That’s also when she turned to alcohol and drugs. She enjoyed a brief respite after rehab in 1989, receiving her associate’s degree in occupation therapy medicine, but got swept back into the depths of alcohol and drug addiction when her mother was dying of cancer.
Now clean and sober, Rasmussen is still diagnosed with “SMI,” or serious mental illness, but she has learned how to overcome.
“Susan has many triumphs to celebrate,” wrote her nominator Chrysanne Fife. Rasmussen keeps up with her medications regimen, is losing weight, has lost her suicidal feelings and no longer engages in self-mutilation. She is also training to be a childhood presenter for Parents and Teachers as Allies, teaching a class as a mentor, lives independently, is able to drive again and has cultivated a network of friends where support is freely exchanged.
“She is facing the world head-on and with a very positive attitude,” Fife said.
Even through 24 years of living with his bipolar illness and a serious suicide attempt, Dan Steffy, 55, has never fallen prey to self pity. Instead, he has used his illness to help educate and help others. First diagnosed at age 19, Steffy spent the following two decades being hospitalized six times and struggling with life. He’d enjoy long cycles of stability – only to become beset by tremors and other bipolar side effects.
His suicide attempt landed him in a meeting at NAMISA.
“For Dan, part of coming to terms with his illness was wanting to give back,” said Scott Whitley, last year’s award recipient who nominated Steffy for 2009.
And give back Steffy has.
Steffy went from being a member of the peer support group to heading the meetings – and then some. He continued his service – and career – by becoming a representative of Tucson’s Mental Health Association, working for COPE and joining the Peer Mentor Program and Warm Line, a peer-to-peer telephone support network.
He also works as a trainer in the Recovery Support Specialist Program and community education specialist at Community Partnership of Southern Arizona, where he also organizes the Mental Health News.
“Recovery is being at the edge and being able to bounce back,” Steffy said.
Wow, is all I can say.
Well, Wow, and congratulations!
Have you known others who have successfully coped with mental illness?
Have you successfully coped?