Jennifer Carson remembers when she realized she needed to get help with her grief over the loss of her stillborn son in 1999.
Mrs. Carson got connected with Fonda Latham, now executive director at the year-old Samaritan Counseling Center in Tyler. At first, she began seeing Mrs. Latham weekly or every other week. At the time, Mrs. Latham was director at the Grace Community Church counseling center.
“At first, it was really, really difficult to open up and share,” Mrs. Carson said. “There were so many parts of me that I felt if people saw, they would judge me or run away. But Fonda didn't run away, and she didn't judge me. I found healing in those places.”
The counselors at the nonprofit organization never ask clients to share their stories with the media, Mrs. Latham said. They don't want their clients to feel pressured. Mrs. Carson approached Mrs. Latham at a fundraising event and said she would be willing to share her story to help raise awareness.
“I would not be where I am without counseling, without being vulnerable enough to go into those places,” Mrs. Carson said. “Fonda never led, never gave me the answers. She asked me questions to help me figure things out on my own.”
Oftentimes there is a stigma associated with getting counseling, she said.
“People aren't shocked (when they learn I've been to counseling), but it's not something they want to do. It's a vulnerability thing, it's an unknown,” she said.
Doug McSwane remembers the eerie phone call he received from his popular, athletic son who was doing well at Texas Tech.
“Dad, how long have you been part of the Mafia, and when did you put a chip in my head?”
Patrick was diagnosed with schizophrenia. After battling the disease for nine years, Patrick took his own life in August. He was 29.
The number of suicides is already higher this year than 2011, according to reports from the Smith County Sheriff's Department and the Tyler Police Department. While 14 were reported in Smith County and seven in Tyler last year, 18 in the county and 11 in the city had been reported this year as of this past week.
The Samaritan Institute sees clients with schizophrenia as long as they are medically managing their symptoms.
People who suffer from schizophrenia have difficulty telling what is real, thinking clearly or acting normally in social situations. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, they are not usually violent and don't make up the majority of violent crimes, but they are at a greater risk of suicide.
Patrick struggled with terrible side effects from his anti-psychotics, McSwane said. They searched all over the country for a place that could help him. McSwane hopes to help with a greater understanding of mental illness and more funding for treatment and Assisted Outpatient Treatment courts.
Long before Patrick died, McSwane and his family sought counseling, he said. It helped him connect with Patrick while he was alive and has helped him with the grief now that he's gone, he said.
“I've been a strong Christian for a long time,” McSwane said. “Your first thought is 'I've just got to trust in God, I don't need a counselor.' I was so wrong about that. They can help you know how to deal with it. I'll never forget my first session. I thought 'I guess I'll just lie down on the couch, and he'll tell me I've been abused as a child.' But he helped me understand that my son was struggling with the side effects that can be worse than the disease. He encouraged me to talk to Patrick, and Patrick opened up when I sat down and asked him about what it was like. He didn't do anything to cause this disease. He so wanted to be normal.”
“The other day I was playing golf with my brother-in-law, and it occurred to me that I won't play golf with Patrick again,” he said with tears in his eyes. “This Christmas is going to be hard, but they tell me not to be afraid of grief.”
About a quarter of the population suffers from mental illness, according to National Institute of Mental Health, and McSwane suspects many families don't talk about it, the way his family didn't.
McSwane and Mrs. Carson hope that more people will be willing to use counseling in the future.
“I'm the most excited about the possibility of normalizing it for people,” she said. “It's not something only really, really messed up people do. Going to counseling is almost like unpacking a suitcase. You have someone who's helping you unpack so you can figure it out for yourself. … Every one of us gets into situations where we can't see clearly. A counselor is an objective person to walk alongside us.”