Brooke Katz, RN, began to hear voices and have visual hallucinations at age nine, and was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder as a teenager. “It’s hard for you to tell by looking at me now how sick I really was, ” she said to almost 200 people who attended “Brain Development in Teenagers: Where Things Go Wrong,” the inaugural installment of the new Be Mentally Well lecture series that was held Oct. 20 at UMass Medical School. In her emotional first-person narrative, Katz described how, after experiencing her first psychotic breakdown during high school, she went on to be hospitalized more than 20 times in 10 years, often for weeks at a time, frequently in restraints and heavily drugged. Her family finally moved to Massachusetts in search of better treatment, where, she said, “My recovery began.” Now 30 years old, Katz enjoys a fulfilling career as a psychiatric nurse, is enrolled in graduate school and lives independently. Her struggles with, and ultimately triumph over, mental illness brings tears to many who hear her speak, or read her memoir I Think I Scared Her: Growing Up with Psychosis. But while Katz’s tale is one of great pain, it is also one of hope and inspiration. She personifies how, with the right treatment and support, leavened with hope and resilience, young people with mental illness can lead full and satisfying lives. The 15 young patients of the UMass Adolescent Treatment Programs at Worcester State Hospital who attended Be Mentally Well were particularly inspired by the story of someone who has overcome the challenges they are currently experiencing, especially one young man who kept nodding his head as Katz spoke.
“We invited Brooke to speak because she is an amazing young woman whose story gives youth and their families hope that they will get around the bend,” said Laura Myers, MSW, EdD, director of parental and community relations for the Department of Psychiatry and the driving force behind the Be Mentally Well series. “We want to share the important work that the Medical School is doing to assist in the understanding of adolescent brain development and helping adolescents with mental health challenges to achieve meaningful and successful lives.” Katz’s talk was a compelling wrap-up to a variety of Be Mentally Well presentations by Medical School psychiatry faculty who explained brain development and health in layman’s terms, and highlighted the exciting research they are conducting to better understand both normal and abnormal brain development. Hosted by the Department of Psychiatry, Be Mentally Well is just one of many ways in which UMass Medical School and UMass Memorial Health Care support children and families affected by mental illness. Future topics in the series will embrace adult, as well as child and adolescent psychiatry, as living with mental illness can be lifelong sojourn. The Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s community education program Tea with MDs is another way faculty are reaching out to provide information and insight to the community. Presented by the UMass Medical School Child and Adolescent Neurodevelopment Initiative (CANDI), in cooperation with the Worcester-based Parent/Professional Advocacy League and the Autism Resource Center of Central Massachusetts, Tea With MDs is a series of informal gatherings held at the Worcester Public Library, where child and adolescent psychiatrists provide information and answer community members’ questions on a range of mental health disorders. The series was spearheaded by CANDI co-director Jean Frazier, MD, the Robert M. and Shirley S. Siff Chair in Autism and professor of psychiatry and pediatrics, and organized by Celia Brown, community liaison for the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Reflecting the spirit of collaboration that infuses all UMMS-sponsored community engagement efforts, Dr. Frazier, vice chair of psychiatry and director of child and adolescent psychiatry, also spoke about healthy brain development in teenagers at the Be Mentally Well inaugural talk in October. In addition to providing the kind of ongoing support that will help persons with psychiatric challenges, programs like Be Mentally Well and Tea With MDs inform the community about the cutting-edge neuroscientific, neurobiological, translational and clinical research underway at UMass Medical School that is yielding new clues to help patients and caregivers alike understand, diagnose and treat mental illness, in adults as well as in children. “We are all trying to help kids and families,” said Brown, whose responsibilities include recruiting subjects for CANDI research studies. “It is gratifying to connect and expand our network.” To learn more about the Department of Psychiatry and Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s education, research and public service activities, visit http://www.umassmed.edu/psychiatry/index.aspx.