1 of 3
Illustration By David Busby
2 of 3
After the death of her son, Justin, Pat Myers resolved that no family should have to face mental illness alone. Photo by Ash Daniel
3 of 3
Justin Myers Photo by Ash Daniel
It wasn't until after her son's first semester in college that labels associated with mental illness hit home for Pat Myers.
Looking back, she recalls that there were times she worried about Justin during middle and high school. Though her son was athletic and intelligent, he never seemed to feel like he was quite good enough, and he struggled to find happiness.
"I would never have suspected that he was suffering from depression, because I myself didn't know anything about depression, but now in retrospect, I feel that he was," Myers says. "I think that some of the difficulties that he had focusing in school and with some relationships were all wrapped around that."
After high school, Justin left home to attend Rappahannock Community College in Warsaw, where he entered the school's baseball program. Soon, it became clear that things weren't going well. He wasn't getting along with others on the team, and he began to come home more and more frequently. He started showing symptoms of anxiety. Initially Myers says that she and her husband, Eddie, were concerned that his problems were drug-related. After an evaluation and hospitalization in late 2002, the family received some startling news.
"That was the first time we were ever told that he had unspecified psychosis and he may have bipolar disorder, he may have schizophrenia," Myers says. "Those are the first times those words had ever come into our life, and it was like a bomb being dropped on us. "We just looked at each other and asked, ‘Where did this come from?' ‘How does this happen.' " Justin left college after his first semester and moved back home to Midlothian, but Myers says he was still a typical teenager in some ways. He didn't want to take medications, and he didn't want anyone to know he had been diagnosed with a mental illness. He would reach manic highs and then drop into depressive episodes when he wouldn't leave the house for months. For the Myers family, including a younger daughter still in high school, life began to revolve around Justin and his illness. They spent the next year and a half looking for help. Justin didn't connect well with doctors or therapists, so he saw a series of health care providers. He was also hospitalized five times during that period. After his last hospitalization, he looked at me one day and said, ‘No more medicine, no more doctors, no more hospitals.' I took that as meaning, as he had told me before, that he didn't want to take medicine and he didn't want to be sick, but not long after that, I think he just gave up," Myers says. "I think he had determined that he wasn't ever going to be able to have the life that he had hoped he would have." By this time, Justin had isolated himself from almost all of his friends. Myers and her husband became increasingly alarmed. In researching their son's illness, she found a statistic that an estimated 15 percent of people diagnosed as bipolar die from suicide. The couple "tag-teamed" to keep Justin from being alone, and when he was severely affected by his illness, Pat would even take him to work with her. Still, Justin found a time to quietly end his life one morning in his room, after his mother had left for work. He died on June 24, 2004, at age 21. "I saw so much pain and so much hurt in him while he was so ill that I don't have any anger toward him for what he did," Myers says. "He was trying to relieve his pain, I know that." The family was further traumatized when, six months after Justin's death, Eddie Myers suffered a fatal heart attack. Pat Myers says she believes that the distress he endured after his son's death was a factor. "I really do feel that the heartbreak can cause someone to die of a heart attack," she says. Afterward, Myers resolved that no family should have to face mental illness alone. She and her daughter, Lauren, partnered with seven other families to establish Family Advocacy Creating Education and Services (FACES) on the grounds of St. Mark's United Methodist Church in Midlothian. Myers credits the Rev. David Adkins, former pastor of St. Mark's, with helping her to cope with the deaths of her son and her husband. "I don't want anybody else to ever go through what our family went through," Myers says, tearing up. "I said something good has to come out of this, so that's where FACES comes from." Initially, FACES was designed to be a support group. While her son was still living, Myers and the other founding families had completed a 12-week Family-to-Family Education Program through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Virginia. The families formed a bond and decided to meet as a support group at St. Mark's. Justin died soon afterward, and Adkins arranged for the group to use a building on the church property as a more permanent home. A stone pathway and flowers brighten the entrance to FACES. Inside, couches and pillows make a comfortable space for the support group, which gathers on the first and third Tuesday of the month, from 7 to 8:30 p.m. Those who attend the peer-run group hear the stories of others who are struggling with a loved one's mental illness, and they share their own experiences. Often, after new people attend one of the meetings, Myers says, "When they leave that evening, they say to us, ‘I feel so much better just to be able to talk freely and get answers from other people who have dealt with the same things.' It sounds so simple and so basic, but it's a huge help." FACES also holds monthly advocacy meetings and classes on a number of topics related to mental illness, even reaching out to community groups to provide information. Myers says that the organization has also been in contact with the Chesterfield County School Board in an effort to offer education on mental illness in local schools. She says that parents often think their child is behaving normally and don't notice the warning signs. With more awareness among students, parents, teachers and support staff, those needing treatment could be identified earlier. "I really feel like [it might have helped] if somebody had said to me back when Justin was in middle school, ‘This kind of looks like maybe depression,' " she says. "I never in a million years suspected that was what was going on."