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RESPECT Day breaks stigmas

Doctors, staff, patients, friends and family took part in Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center’s RESPECT Day on Thursday, with speakers explaining the importance of breaking down stigmas surrounding mental illness and to encourage seeking treatment without shame.

The RESPECT movement was developed in Missouri by Joel Slack, a mental health advocate and international consultant who would publicly tell the story of his experience of recovering from mental illness.

Regional Executive Officer Julie Inman welcomed those in attendance, saying the importance of RESPECT Day lies in hearing the stories of those experiencing mental illness so that misconceptions can be broken down and recovery can be celebrated without shame.

“We’ve got to get to a point where we talk about mental health the same way we talk about heart disease or diabetes,” Inman said.

Crystal Mace further encouraged those in attendance to consider for a moment the position that many patients suffering from mental illness find themselves in, with their most private and difficult struggles being the focus of others, while their gifts and talents are overlooked.

The first RESPECT speaker, Tommy Parris, was then introduced and spoke to the crowd about his personal story and struggle with mental illness.

Parris told the crowd about his struggle as a child in St. Louis with an alcoholic father who he vowed to never be like as he grew up. At the age of 12, Parris found himself to be the adult of the house, tasked with providing food for his younger siblings.

It was at this time that Parris began drinking, soon becoming what he described as a functional drunk.

Despite his drinking, Parris went on to have a family and a successful career. He told of how he eventually confided in a coworker that despite his career and family, he was not happy and could not figure out why.

Parris was prescribed an antidepressant which he said only worked for a while. He saw multiple doctors, tried multiple medications, but continued to drink while using the antidepressants. Eventually, the combination of alcohol and antidepressants caused Parris to experience “psychotic blackouts.” During one of these episodes, Parris found himself in trouble with the law.

It was in this way that Parris came to be at Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center and began his road to recovery. He described the process of changing his thought processes with the help of doctors and classes, which enabled him to no longer live in the past and to base decisions less and less on emotion.

For about a year now, Parris has been telling his story to local organizations. He said he never intended on publicly telling his story, but with some help in crafting his story, he has become confident in sharing his experience.

“The speech is my own,” he said. “But it took me at least a good two months to write. I’m not a writer and not very well-educated. I never wrote something like this. It was pretty difficult.”

Parris said he does not focus on the details of his life, as they are deeply personal and still too emotional for him to discuss publicly, but he hopes by describing his experience at large, he can show that recovery is possible.

“Hopefully, my message is that I have mental illness just like everybody else in this hospital and that’s beyond our control,” he said. “But we come here to learn how to deal with it so we can learn to live normal lives like everybody else in the community. Just because we’ve got a mental illness doesn’t mean that we’re taboo for the rest of our life. It’s not something we have to regret or be afraid to talk about.”

With his history of depression and self-medication, Parris said that if he had not come to the hospital, he would likely still be trying to cover up his mental illness with alcohol, which made his situation even worse.

“By coming here, I’m able to realize and know that I can never drink again, even casually,” Parris said. “But I also feel much better now than I ever have before in my life. I’m 70 years old. Ever since I can remember, I’ve never felt this way in my life. I’ve never really been completely sober.”

More than sobriety, Parris said his outlook on life has changed — enabling him to understand what life is like for someone who does not struggle with constant alcohol abuse.

“I’ve realized how everybody else feels, who don’t drink,” he said. “I can talk to you and look you in the eye. I couldn’t do that when I was younger, when I was drinking.”

The road to recovery is one, in Parris’ view, that can not be walked alone or without guidance. He stressed the importance of the classes offered at the hospital, which overlap and provide a systematic method of improvement.

“The hospital also changed my core beliefs,” Parris said. “When I grew up, I had a different belief for how to act. If somebody would do something wrong to you back in the ’50s, your parents would say, ‘They did what to you? And you didn’t do anything back? You go whoop him, and if he whoops you, you’ll come back home and get another whooping.’ So the way we think is different.”

After getting sober, getting treatment and taking the classes to heart, Parris said real recovery is able to begin taking place. For this reason, he tells his story to those who will listen, with the hope of encouraging others to seek treatment before their lives get out of control.

“When you change your core belief you can start listening,” he said. “If you don’t change that, I don’t believe you can fully get there. You have to change your core belief and go to the classes. That’s what worked wonders for me. I’m happy!”

One of the speakers at Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center's RESPECT Day on Thursday, Tommy Parris, encouraged those suffering from mental illness to seek treatment and begin their path to recovery.

One of the speakers at Southeast Missouri Mental Health Center’s RESPECT Day on Thursday, Tommy Parris, encouraged those suffering from mental illness to seek treatment and begin their path to recovery.

Jacob Scott is a reporter with the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3616 or at

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