Changing Views on Mental Health

  • By:  Brandy Centolanza

More than 44 million adults have a mental health condition. Meet three local ladies who are on a mission to get lives back on track.

Tucker Corprew’s son, Charles “Chas” Kirkwood, first began showing signs of attention disorder and emotional issues when he was in the fourth grade. It took ten years before he was formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder and psychosis. By then, his symptoms had grown progressively worse.

In one instance, Tucker and Chas’s wife spent 32 hours in the emergency room with Chas, who was 34, following a nervous breakdown, before a psychiatric bed was found for him. He later spent a few weeks at Virginia Beach Psychiatric Center.

Although Chas was put on medication and released, the treatment was just not enough for his condition and Chas ended up committing suicide due to his mental illness. Chas hung himself in the home he shared with his wife and was discovered by his father with several Bible passages near him on the floor.

“He got worse as he got older,” Tucker said. “I was pretty mad after it happened because I didn’t feel like he got effective treatment.”

According to Mental Health America, a national organization dedicated to addressing the needs of those who live with mental illness, more than 44 million adults have a mental health condition. The rate of children who experience mental health issues is also on the rise. It can take years before someone is properly diagnosed and begins therapy or treatment, leaving families feeling helpless and hopeless.

Locally, Tucker is among many women who have been impacted by mental illness, some of whom are working to increase understanding and available care for those who suffer from mental illness. Let’s meet three local ladies who are on a mission to get lives back on track.

Faster, Better Treatment

Support through The Chas Foundation & other advocacy groups

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Today, Tucker, the mother of three sons, works to prevent the same fate as Chas for other families through The Chas Foundation, an organization she and her son Beau started in Norfolk in her late son’s honor in 2012. The Chas Foundation operates out of the Church of the Good Shepherd.

“Our mission at the Chas Foundation is to increase access to effective treatment,” Tucker said. “Our goal is to assess where the gaps are and change them. While we can’t change any laws, we can go out into the community and help close those gaps that we can control.”

Supporting other mental health advocacy groups is a priority for The Chas Foundation. The organization donated furniture to the Crisis Stabilization Unit in Norfolk, where Beau helps train those who are a part of the Crisis Intervention Team (CIT).

CIT is comprised of local law enforcement officials, emergency dispatchers, mental health care providers, and others in the community who provide aid to those who suffer from a mental illness and help them avoid incarceration. The Chas Foundation also assisted with the remodel of the lockdown facility at Bon Secours Maryview Medical Center in Portsmouth.

Ensuring that children are diagnosed and receive treatment as early as possible is also important to Tucker. Her foundation gave a total of $80,000 to The Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters (CHKD) to help train its pediatricians and staff. CHKD sees anywhere from three to five children daily in their emergency room in need of a mental health evaluation. The hospital plans to expand its mental health services with a $50 million psychiatric center geared toward treating those aged two to 18.

“Once mental illness gets too far down the road, it becomes too hard to treat,” Tucker said. “We have to be innovative in how we treat mental illness. We have to find new ways to treat mental illness and get kids faster, better treatment.”

Mental illness not only impacts the person who suffers from it, but also their loved ones, too. Through The Chas Foundation’s Mental Illness Navigator & Support Program (MINS), Tucker spends much time holding the hands of family members as she walks them the process.

“When I was trying to get help for my child, I didn’t know who to talk to or what kinds of services and resources were out there,” Tucker said. “We try to help families figure out what to do. We want to help them do what it takes to get their loved one healthy and keep them healthy.” That may mean connecting families to specialized treatment, supporting families who may need to go to court, or simply listening to them as they explain what they are going through.

“The stigma is still so bad and a lot of them can’t talk to their friends, so they don’t know who they can turn to for empathy,” Tucker said. “MINS is successful because we’ve been through what these families are going through.”

Dealing with a loved one who struggles with a mental health condition is certainly stressful, so The Chas Foundation is also introducing a meditation program for family members and caregivers.

“Mental illness is very intense,” Tucker said. “It needs to be treated like any other disease. We can’t look away any more. We have to deal with it.”

A Happier Place

Sustaining Youth & Families takes a holistic approach to mental wellness

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Renee Champagne-Davis agrees. Renee knows all too well what it feels like to wrestle with mental health issues. Renee, a veteran of the United States Air Force who now lives in Williamsburg, endured personal traumas during her time both in and out of the military, including rape, divorce and personal health issues, all of which led to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

At first, Renee kept herself occupied as a way to cope, delving into running marathons, and furthering her education, and tending to other people instead of herself. Eventually, all the stress and turmoil caught up with her.

“I believed if I kept myself busy, served others, ran races, and continued my education that I would feel better, fill the void, and that would make me a better mother and wife,” Renee said.

“But exactly the opposite happened. I ended up exhausted and disconnected. This exacerbated the symptoms of my PTSD, which directly affected my ability to function. I couldn’t complete tasks. I constantly felt like a failure. I struggled with my emotions and felt lost.”

Renee discovered yoga and began to rely more on mindfulness and spirituality to guide her out of her darkness. Now a certified Yoga Alliance instructor and wellness coach, Renee said that acceptance of her emotions was also key to her moving to a happier place in her life.

“When I started to realize that it was okay to not be false positive all the time and to feel emotions like shame, guilt, sadness, and anger, that’s when the healing began,” Renee said. “I learned to let go of the things, people, and environments that were unhealthy for me. I began to feel empowered, clearer, and healthier both physically and mentally.”

Renee is an example of how mental health can have an impact on one’s entire life, either good or bad, and now she works to help others in similar situations.

“Mental health affects how we think, feel, and act,” she said. “It guides us on how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. We need to teach our children and families how to cope with stress and not shame them. We need to allow them to feel natural emotions and address them in a healthy manner—not just view them as good or bad—or they will not develop the capability and skills to deal with the experiences in their lives.”

That is why Renee, along with her husband, Joe Davis, founded the organization Sustaining Youth & Families. The organization, which takes a holistic approach to mental wellness, provides services nationally.

Sustaining Youth & Families offers health counseling, consulting, education, yoga lessons, fitness training, and outdoor adventure programs as outlets for individuals affected by mental illness, particularly military families, at-risk youth, and those with special needs. The goal is to help prevent people from falling through the cracks left by other available services.

“If you know someone who has mental health issues, listen to them,” Renee said. “Be there for them without expectations and judgment and help them find resources. If you can’t support them, then step away and help them find someone who can. Don’t just blow them off.”

Making a Difference

National Alliance on Mental Health offers support for mental illness

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As president of the Coastal Virginia affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI), Courtney Boone works tirelessly as an advocate for those who struggle with mental health issues. For Courtney, satisfaction comes from helping individuals living with mental illness, such as one young man named Thomas, whose life turned around after his mental health problems led to incarceration.

Courtney met Thomas four years ago, shortly after he was released from jail. She invited Thomas to attend a NAMI support group. Thomas, who lives with schizophrenia, has since received his GED, been able to maintain a job and relationships, and was recently trained to become a facilitator for the NAMI Connections Support Group. Courtney and Thomas have become so close that he spends holidays with her family, and Courtney’s husband, Jim, has been teaching him how to cook.

“He is a great son, a great brother, a great friend, and one of my greatest joys,” she said. “He puts in the work.”

Because of stories like this, Courtney remains committed to her work with NAMI, an all-volunteer organization she has been part of since 2009. NAMI offers free support groups for those living with mental illness and their loved ones plus free educational classes and outreach programs. The support groups and classes are led by either those who struggle with a mental illness or family members of those with mental illness.

“Like others, I have family members who live with or have lived with mental illness,” she said. “Unfortunately, some of them are no longer here due to their mental illness. That’s unacceptable to me. No family should have to go through that.”

NAMI, which has chapters both on the Southside and Peninsula, is also an active partner with many CIT programs. Courtney is a firm believer in community outreach and frequently gives speeches and presentations on NAMI, helping to spread the word about the resources and services available for families.

“I am always approached after my presentations by people wanting to share their experiences and their struggles, either their loved one’s or their own,” she said. “Knowing that we are helping them is the most incredible feeling in the world. If we can help even just one person, then we are making a difference.”

Courtney feels there should be no shame for those who suffer from mental illness. She is working toward destigmatizing the issue.

“We have to be open to what people are going through,” she said. “Mental illness has always been there. It’s time to talk about it. It’s time to normalize the conversation. It shouldn’t be about gloom and doom. It should be about hope. That’s what I want.”

Brandy Centolanza is a freelance writer who lives in Williamsburg.

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