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More MS news articles for October 2002

Pete Feigal shares the personal side of mental illness at mental health conference

October 17, 2002
By Franny White
Daily Globe
WORTHINGTON - Pete Feigal was just 15 when his parents put him in a mental institution for depression.

Inside the Mayo Clinic-affiliated institution, he saw people treated with electric shock therapy, straight jackets and other "instruments of torture, " he said.

"This place took the fun out of dysfunctional," Feigal said with a smile. Instead of listening and trying to relate to patients with compassion, the institution's doctors essentially punished patients for "not giving into the therapeutic community."

Though the Rochester institution has since been bulldozed and its head doctor had his license taken away for the institution's practices, those with mental illness like Feigal continue in their struggle for understanding from society and medical professionals.

Feigal, a St. Paul resident, is an actor, a motorcyclist and a sketch artist. He has also been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, and most recently, multiple sclerosis. Feigal was the keynote speaker for a daylong mental health education conference held at Memorial Auditorium Performing Arts Center Wednesday. Through his own life stories, Feigal showed the personal side of mental illness.

While his diagnosis of multiple sclerosis 13 years ago brought a myriad of well wishers and love, Feigal said mental illness is not as embraced with compassion by society.

"Multiple sclerosis is a politically correct disease," Feigal said. "My depression, there's no balloons, there's not cards, there's not hot dishes.

"It comes with this stigma, this lie that it's somehow my fault, that I should snap out of it."

Mental illness does not occur by choice, Feigal said, but by biochemical imbalances in the brain. The social stigma, combined with the psychological effects of neural chemical imbalances, often make mental illness patients feel they are unintelligent, unattractive and undesirable, Feigal said.

"To know mental illness is to feel absolutely alone, even when you're with friends and family," Feigal said. "You feel abandoned, not only by man, but by God.

Over 30 years after his battle began with mental illness and several stays in hospitals, Feigal's condition has improved. He is now an advocate for those who suffer from mental illness. He gives presentations to students, doctors and community members in between to bring better understanding of mental conditions.

"Mental illness ... is one of the most damaging illnesses because it damages our inner self," Feigal said. "Depression attacks my soul."

To help someone experiencing a mental illness, Feigal suggests people first learn about the disease, then assist that person get professional help, and most importantly, be kind. He said its important to see mental patients as people.

"We are wonderful people who tend to have a disease," Feigal said, "but we are not our disease."

Kathy DeVries, a registered nurse and Worthington resident, said she could relate to Feigal's talk.

"It brought tears to my eyes," DeVries said.

The mental health education conference was sponsored by Southwinds ACT social services and the case managers of Nobles County Family Services. About 200 mental health professionals, patients, the friends and families of both and other community members attended Wednesday's conference.

© Worthington Daily Globe 2002