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Sunday, December 10, 2023
Dec. 10, 2023

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Mental health care explained from eye of storm

Portland reporter has studied issue since her husband’s suicide

By , Columbian staff writer

The Columbia River Gorge, one of the most beautiful places in the world, draws crowds of people who want to hike and bike and kayak.

But some people go there to disappear, Sheila Hamilton said.

In October 2006, Hamilton’s husband of 10 years vanished into the Gorge after being discharged from what she now calls woefully inadequate psychiatric care. That was six weeks after he’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Weeks after he disappeared, authorities found his body. The 50-year-old had committed suicide with a gun.

Hamilton, a leading Portland radio reporter and personality who’s heard daily on KINK-FM, was at Children’s Center, a Vancouver mental health clinic, Friday afternoon to sign copies of her new book, “All The Things We Never Knew.” It’s the story of her husband’s mental decline and suicide, interspersed with chapters detailing Hamilton’s subsequent four-year investigation of American mental health practices.

Hamilton’s talk at Children’s Center was a plea for mental health professionals to stop overmedicating what’s “wrong” with their patients and to start talking through the traumas and tragedies underlying their situations. When mental health patients are respected, equal partners in their own healing, she said, they do remarkably better than when they’re just medicated. That’s what happened to David, her husband, she said.

Hamilton described the man she fell in love with as brilliant, charming, handsome and a loving father to their daughter. But he had a tragic past and a dark side, Hamilton said, and no way to talk about it or ask for help. In the end, it overcame him.

He was born with a cleft palate and teased mercilessly about it as a young child, she said. He endured numerous surgeries to fix it. Then, before he was 10, he was shipped to boarding school and beaten just about daily. The result was “soul eating shame” — probably the environmental trigger for an underlying genetic predisposition toward mental illness, Hamilton said. That’s what doctors have told her.

When Hamilton met David, she thought his flips between energetic brilliance and dark withdrawal were just the signs of “a really brilliant man who needs a rest sometimes.” David always said he was just fine. But his successful construction business started to fall apart. When the couple’s baby was brand new, he started to have affairs.

“Infidelity is a hallmark” of bipolar disorder, Hamilton has learned since.

David always said he was fine, though. And his considerable smarts made him great at masking and denying his illness. Hamilton wanted to believe in him and wanted their daughter to have a dad.

“I missed the signs” because nobody really talked about signs of encroaching mental illness, Hamilton said. Since then, she said, she has hunted for books aimed at spouses and caregivers that describe those signs, and found nothing at all. That’s why she wrote her own book, interspersing David’s story with her own investigation and advice.

“Our care has been lacking,” Hamilton said. She said a mental health system that’s tilted strongly toward the pharmaceutical industry winds up overmedicating people in desperate need of compassionate, therapeutic listening and healing.

Even schizophrenia has been recently shown to respond better to talk therapy with medication than just medication alone, she said. Hamilton said she wants to see medications used “as a screwdriver, not a jackhammer.”

David was eventually diagnosed with clinical depression and given antidepressants — which tipped him into full-blown mania and toward suicide, Hamilton said. The drive-by diagnosis was wrong. David wound up in a psychiatric hospital bed where he was drugged and treated to 15-minute bed checks, but never any concerted effort to unearth his traumatized past and emotions.

“He lost all hope,” Hamilton said. When he was released, he promptly went missing. His truck was eventually spotted, randomly abandoned by a roadside in the Gorge.

Humane care

It’s an oft-repeated statistic that one in five adult Americans contends with a mental illness in any given year. With the problem so widespread, Hamilton said, it’s good to note that progress is being made.

Compassionate, humane models of care — in which doctors and patients are equal partners — are being tested in places such as Portland, she said, where a new Unity Center for Behavioral Health opened this year. Public school health classes are starting to take up emotional health. And young people now growing up in the world of social media are much more willing to share their secrets than previous generations. “They’ve grown up sharing everything,” she said.

The stigma of mental illness is starting to disappear just as the stigma of breast cancer has, Hamilton said.

Hamilton encouraged family members and friends to pay attention and speak up when someone’s behavior takes an alarming turn. They’re the ones who should go to doctors or even law enforcement for help. Hamilton added that she’s adamantly in favor of getting guns away from anyone with mental illness.

“David hated guns,” she said, and never understood why anyone would want one. Then, as his mental state worsened, he became obsessed with guns.

“It was all he could think about,” she said.

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