Feigal is remembered for his dedication to mental health advocacy

Peter D. “Pete” Feigal had an unwavering dedication to mental health advocacy and the need to treat mental health and […]

Pete Feigal headshot

Peter D. “Pete” Feigal had an unwavering dedication to mental health advocacy and the need to treat mental health and physical health issues equitably. He was remembered in March at a  memorial service in St. Paul, after his death February 23. 

He was 68 years old. 

Feigal was a longtime disability advocate as well as a writer and an artist. He was well known for his award-winning, detailed military artwork. 

His life story was one of hardship and perseverance, as recalled in 2008 when he was given the Access Press Charlie Smith Award. The award is presented for outstanding service to Minnesotans with disabilities. 

Feigal gave more than 1,600 talks on mental health topics. He wrote a column for Access Press, Tilting at Windmills. That was also the name of the theater group he founded. 

Feigal’s leadership posts included the presidency of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) Minnesota. He was also active in people Inc. programs. 

Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, said: 

“Pete was an incredible advocate for our mental health movement. He traveled the state sharing his story of living with bipolar disorder which he had titled “How Harley Davidson Saved Me From the Insane Asylum.’ Pete did make people laugh, but he also provided people with hope. He courageously shared his story at a time when people were “anonymous.’” 

“As Pete so eloquently put it ‘It’s no shame, no sin, to get knocked down. It is perhaps the greatest teacher in our lives. Our wounds, terrible and painful as they are, are not unbearable. With medicine and therapy, with spirituality, creativity, volunteering, with focusing not on our wounds, but on what we love, with hope, patience and kindness our wounds in many ways can heal.’ Pete had an impact on many people’s lives. He will be missed.” 

A Pine Island native, Feigal struggled with mental illness since age 12. As a teen he spent a year in a closed mental health unit. He became estranged from his family and community, left home and didn’t return for 20 years. He dealt with homelessness and suicidal thoughts. 

During the 2008 Charlie Smith award presentation, presenter Vicke Dalle Molle said: 

“. . . after years of struggle, Pete began to see his hardships in a new way. His life became ‘a gift to be opened, not a problem to be solved.’ He used adversity as his teacher; hope as his mentor.” 

Molle, longtime executive director of the Southeast Minnesota Center for independent Living (SEMCIL), recalled that the first time she heard Feigal speak was at Mayo Clinic. She didn’t know that was where he’d spent a year as a teen. 

“In his presentation, Pete described just enough of his stay on the unit for the audience to have an understanding of what it was like for an adolescent to be removed from his family, shut off from friends and his community, and made to feel ashamed of who he was,” Molle said. 

Feigal also recalled little kindnesses that formed the good memories of his stay. A janitor had a small cart of books to share. “These were the people who didn’t forget that the kids on the unit were kids, who knew they should be treated as normal kids would want to be treated. (People) understood that the kids weren’t to be blamed or shamed, identified solely on the basis of their illness. They needed to be loved, valued and recognized as people,” Molle said. 

As an adult, Feigal was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He eventually lost his sight. But he always lived by the belief that whatever happens in life, treat it as a gift, not a problem. Second, focus on and celebrate strengths. And third, don’t let others define who you are by your disability. 

He used his life experiences to educate people across the country on what life is like for people with mental illness and other disabilities. His message of hope, determination, opportunity and possibility encouraged others to tell their stories. 

Feigal is survived by a sister and her family, and special friends Tim Willey, Mike Lunde, Chris Dietz, Alden Drew and Kris Heckler. Memorials preferred to NAMI Minnesota or People Incorporated. 

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Mental Wellness