Behavioral health conference tackles service, help for community

A recurring topic in Thursday's Community Behavioral Health Conference was humanizing and putting a face to the topic of mental illness. Everyone at some point in their lives deals with mental illness or has a friend or loved one who will.

“So I know this fellow who lives in Grayson County his name is Bruce and Bruce suffers from schizophrenia,” said Gail Utter, TBHLT research development officer, describing him as a man who lived a comfortable life in his early years.

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Bruce grew up in Tulsa from a middle-class family and went on to attend college at Southern Methodist University. During his time at college Bruce began to hear voices that would lead him into paranoia.

“Those voices told Bruce that people were out to get him and a lot about paranoia,” she said. “From there it was an interesting spiral of upward and downward, and a lot of downward.”

Bruce would go on to get a degree, but had difficulty holding down a job. Over the years, he has been asked to leave from businesses in the area because he can scare people with his behavior when his medication isn't working or he is off of it. Thankfully, Bruce never had altercations with law enforcement.

His fight with mental illness has also led him to stay at the behavioral health center once after he was legally committed.

“So you might have guessed that Bruce — the guy who lives in our community — Bruce is my brother,” Utter said. “Bruce is going to be OK because he has some resources and he has some people that care about him, but there are a lot of Bruces out there that don't have a place to live or transportation or people to take care of them and make sure they take their medication. There are too many Bruces out there.”

Local health providers and advocates came together to bring the topic of mental illness into the public Thursday as a part of the Fourth Annual Community Behavioral Health Conference. The event, which was organized by the Texoma Behavioral Health Leadership Team, brought together the resources of the region's mental health service providers in an effort to bring the issues of mental illness into the light.

“Our goal here is to bring the community together, all of the disciplines that have something to do with touching someone with a mental health challenge,”said Gail Utter. “(We want to) to continue the conversation and keep it at the forefront and remind everyone how important it is to not keep it under wraps but get it out in the light.”

Thursday's event featured talks with experts and local caregivers ranging from local law enforcement and medical personnel to survivors who told their stories of coping and recovery.

“I think what we saw here was a lot of courage by people who face some incredible obstacles,” Utter said. “They could have folded at any moment but they found the courage to be resilient.”

Among the speakers during Thursday's event was Sherman High School alumnus Trenell Walker, who was paralyzed from the neck down following a football accident at the age of 14. In the years since, Walker has gained recognition as a public speaker and work in rehabilitation counseling.

“I want you to be aware of the pain and the needs the accompany hopelessness,” Walker said, urging people to be resilient during the worst of times.

Walker grew up in Sherman and attended Sherman High School in the early 90s. At a young age, Walker showed skill and talent in athletics that led him to play football.

It was during a football game in 1995 that Walker took a hard hit that shattered his C4 vertebrae in his neck. The damage was so significant that x-rays showed a gap in his neck where the bone should be.

Despite the significance of his injury, Walker said he remained optimistic about his recovery.

“I knew I was going to be paralyzed, but in my mind, I thought it would be temporary,” Walker said.

Reality began to set in after he graduated high school and other classmates began to go on college and adult life. Meanwhile, Walker was stuck at home, still unable to walk or live independently.

“My dreams of going to the NFL and taking care of my mother were gone,” he said.

Depression began to set in during his young adult years. At times, Walker said he would escape through sleep and into dreams where he was able to do all the things he wasn't able to do in the waking world. It was as though his accident never happened.

“You or someone you know may be dealing with depression and that causes them to do nothing. The thing about nothingness is it doesn't end.”

Given the public nature of his accident, Walker said he would often be approached by people who were there for the football game and would constantly remind him of it.

“Every time I heard that it felt like rubbing salt in an open wound,” he said.

While he has recovered from the depression, Walker said he still feels the pain to this day. In 2017 while working on his computer, he ran across a photo of himself and friends in eighth grade and was reminded of the times before his injury. With that photo, he felt himself break down.

“I finally let that 14-year-old boy grieve after 22 years,” he said.