On front lines of mental health crisis

NAMI executive director strives to help local patients

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

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George Tsugawa: Woodland man tells students of life in internment camp

Nathan Webster: Veteran not afraid to Dream Big

The Johnsons: Amboy siblings recall childhoods at ‘the Big House’

Peggy McCarthy: On front lines of mental health crisis

The Proctors: Vancouver couple fight for veterans

Randy Fox: From inadvertent spotter to hall of fame coach

Lehman Holder: Outdoorsman happy to take the lead

Wade Leckie: ‘Bike guy’ pumps up city’s bicycling scene

Sara Teas, Jen Studebaker and Lee-Anne Flandreau: Fort Vancouver library’s virtual services go off the books

Tanya Bachman: Art teacher molds students with her can-do attitude

David Speer: Labor & Industries agent helps employees, mends fences

Ryan Hurley: Building community key for developer of Sparks building

Peggy McCarthy believes in healing of all sorts — from highly scientific Western medicine to the ancient Asian body — and spirit-stretching of yoga and meditation.

“I am a trained scientist, and I want to bring scientific rigor to everything we do. And I also know that Western medicine is not the only thing,” McCarthy said during an interview at the Hazel Dell office of nonprofit NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, where she’s been executive director since 2013.

McCarthy’s zigzagging path across science, healing and business has seen her working as a cellular immunologist and researcher, a medical writer and educator, and a nonprofit agency director. But she started out volunteering at a small, underfunded hospital in Flagstaff, Ariz., at age 13. It was a radical thing for a girl to do then, she said, but within a few years she was assisting in surgery, managing the emergency room and even helping deliver babies.

Still, McCarthy didn’t want to be a nurse. And she was assured that women who went to medical school were only stealing opportunities from men. So went to the University of Arizona to study home economics — but quickly switched to microbiology. After graduation, she worked as a researcher in laboratories and clinics at the University of California at San Diego.

The school was adding science programs and ending racial segregation at that time, and McCarthy found both developments exciting and motivating. The underpaid kitchen workers and animal caretakers she knew on campus were generally “black and brown,” she said, while the researchers and professors were white.

“But I knew that those people were very smart, so I started a one-year program to teach them to be lab techs,” she said. That meant math, writing, laboratory techniques. At the same time, she said, students were leaping out of tall buildings after failing to get into medical school. She started a program called “Faces of Healing” in reaction to that, she said. It was her first conscious step into the world of mental health, she said.

Except, she reflected, for the sexual abuse she suffered as a child. After she wound up in the hospital and “blew the whistle” on her abuser, her family life fragmented and never recovered.

McCarthy added that her tolerant, liberal heart never fit the strident racism of her family background. She was the only white kid who ventured to talk to the Indians and Mexicans and blacks at her elementary school, she remembered. A relative used to tell her that she was born into her particular family in order to “shake it up.”

All of which firmed up a sense that “I had the power to change the world,” McCarthy said. “I was the rebel in my family. I never backed down.”

‘Haldol shuffle’

McCarthy loved designing drug trials. She loved writing up data and seeing it published. What she didn’t love, she realized, was the years of lag time. Furthermore, it stuck in her craw that all of her colleagues were men — and that too many of them got into pure science because they couldn’t cut it as doctors, she said.

She earned a Master of Business Administration nights and weekends, and eventually launched a series of medical marketing and education companies. She was involved with teaching professionals and the public about new heart medications, antiviral drugs and antidepressants. She served on government boards and committees and founded what’s now the Lung Cancer Alliance, based in Washington, D.C. She was named a “Champion of Women’s Health” by the Ladies Home Journal in 2000.

McCarthy watched in alarm as state hospitals and psychiatric facilities started emptying out and shutting down in the 1970s and 1980s. The new philosophy was to administer monthly doses of powerful antipsychotic drugs, she said, and let those drowsy, dumbed-down patients enjoy their freedom. This was the first appearance of what’s still known as “the Haldol shuffle,” one of the major side effects of the drug being a slow, flat-footed gait.

“That was the beginning of homelessness in California and everywhere,” McCarthy said. “Everyone was just dosed to stay calm.”

McCarthy’s firm jumped into the fray, she said, producing a blizzard of “Going Home” manuals for consumers and health care professionals. But it’s 20 years later now, McCarthy noted, and the problems of safely and effectively treating and housing people with mental illness are bigger than ever.

Belly breathing

The deinstitutionalization crisis also led to the creation of the first NAMI, in Madison, Wis., in the late 1970s. Now there are more than 1,000 NAMI offices in all 50 states. Most are driven entirely by volunteers and peers. McCarthy said the government grants and professional employees at NAMI Southwest Washington make it a rarity.

McCarthy, who began here in September 2013, has beefed up the board with new members and secured that support from Southwest Washington Behavioral Health.

She has also launched new support groups and wellness programs across the region and at what she considers the most problematic-by-default mental health “hot spot” in the community — the Clark County Jail.

That’s where too many people experiencing mental health breaks wind up, she said, because of first responders who don’t know how to de-escalate crises — or have no other options in a mental health “system” that’s barely a system at all.

When The Columbian visited just before Christmas 2014, McCarthy said her office had been fielding calls from “so many potential suicides. It’s been the hardest week I’ve ever spent here,” she said.

She was also trying to locate a young man in crisis who’d been ejected from an overcrowded hospital emergency room after 12 hours, as per a new law; his family had no contact information and no idea whether he was dead or alive, she said. (He was found eventually, she said.)

“It is absolutely amazing and devastating what’s going on. I had no idea until I got involved,” she said.

To stretch past that devastation, McCarthy reserves inviolable personal space for healthful pursuits of her own. She’s co-authored and self-published several young-adult horse-adventure novels with her granddaughter. She’s religious about yoga at Lake Shore Athletic Club, and is a frequent substitute instructor there.

“Belly breathing” is what it’s all about, she tells her charges.

“If you can learn to breathe from your belly, you can shut off the stress hormones and relax. Is there anybody who doesn’t need a little more relaxation in life?”