Depression and other “mental illnesses” are physically real and can disable a person on a multitude of levels, negatively affecting their physical, mental, psychological, and spiritual lives. This is the message nationally known advocate, speaker, educator, writer, and award-winner Pete Feigal is successfully spreading throughout the country.
Feigal knows his material very well. He has struggled with major depression on and off for 30 years. Feigal was also diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) 13 years ago. Neither of these disabilities has prevented Feigal from seeing an opportunity every time a door shut in his face. Words can’t really define what Feigal has accomplished, but his story is one of hope, wonder, and encouragement.
“All of us have been wounded in some way,” said Feigal. “It’s the insights that come from this that makes us who we really are.”
Who exactly is Pete Feigal? If he were to be described in a few words, those words would be creative, courageous, inspiring, and downright gutsy. Feigal was ten years old when he was first hit with depression. He said all he remembers of that time was feeling a pain and loneliness inside unlike any other kind of pain he had ever experienced. Feigal was officially diagnosed at 13 and institutionalized at the age of 15. This was in the late sixties, when information available to patients and their families on how to cope with depression was scarce, and the medical community was just beginning to understand the illness.
According to the World Health Organization, depression is the number one disability in the world and the number one cause of hospitalizations in America. Sometimes depression is situational, other times it is not. Feigal emphasizes that it is a physical, biochemical disease.
Feigal didn’t get the right kind of medical help until he was in his mid-twenties. For him, the right kind of help included medications to stabilize the neurotransmitters in his brain, but also cognitive therapy, which teaches patients to cut out the major sources of stress that can trigger their illness. The third element of Feigal’s recovery was his spirituality. He said patients with depression “need to focus not on their wounds, but on what they love. They need a reason to get out of bed.”
In college, Feigal switched his major from art to theater and became a successful professional stage actor. When he was diagnosed with MS, Feigal was forced to stop acting. Instead of giving up, he went back to art as a career and became an artist, speaker, and ambassador for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. Feigal also ran his own company as a professional graphic artist. When MS began taking away his eyesight, he realized he would no longer be able to rely on art as his primary method of income. But Feigal didn’t let that keep him down, and he launched himself into a full-time speaking and writing career four years ago. Feigal’s speaking partner, Melanie Groves, also helped him found a local theater company.
“I was fighting despair, not MS,” asserts Feigal. He said his depression was a thousand times worse for him than the symptoms he had from MS. Depression, said Feigal, is lethal not only because of the despair it causes, but because it is one of the “hidden” illnesses that is often politicized and debated because people can’t physically see it. “The stigma that it’s not a real disease made me feel alone and isolated,” said Feigal.
Feigal didn’t let depression ruin his life. He fought back by speaking in local churches about depression, which lead to other speaking engagements and expanded into what is now an 80-hour workweek, with slow months featuring about 14 speaking engagements. He quickly became a national leader for people with mental illness. Feigal now writes the mental illness column for this newspaper and writes for a number of other publications as well. “I don’t have to get up for me,” said Feigal. “I can get out of bed for other people.”
One of Feigal’s big messages revolves around terminology. He would like to see the term “mental illness” be replaced by “brain disorder” because of the negative connotations associated with the former term and the reality that the brains of people with these disorders actually have physically different chemical characteristics than those without them.
Feigal has been working with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Office to help both organizations approach depression as a civil rights struggle. “Mental illness is one of the last bastions of discrimination in America,” said Feigal.
Feigal’s efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. He was named as Minnesota Disabled Artist of the Year 2000 by Very Special Arts, as Advocate of the Year by the Minnesota Psychiatric Society, and as one of “Eleven Who Care” by KARE-11 TV.
His list of accomplishments is a lengthy one. He and Groves are co-founders of local theater company, Tilting At Windmills. Tilting At Windmills uses the stage to educate people about issues such as suicide and depression, and performances are followed by panel discussions with the audience. The program has been acknowledged as one of the top disability art programs in the country, has helped fund supplies for artists, and sponsored a speaker’s bureau, among other accomplishments. Feigal’s involvement with the company spurred KARE-11 to acknowledge him as an exceptional volunteer in his community, the first time someone with a brain disorder won the award.
The CDC has booked Feigal for a number of speaking engagements to teach physicians about depression from a personal viewpoint and to help them develop a new vocabulary surrounding it. “Sometimes doctors don’t see the person behind the pathology,” said Feigal. Also he is working with the Equal Employment Opportunity Office, talking and educating people about depression. “My focus is the human angle,” said Feigal. “We want medical professionals to look at us not as a collection of symptoms, but how looking at us as whole individuals can aid our recovery. We’re not broken.”
Dr. Ron Groat, one of the top-rated psychiatrists in Minnesota and Vicki Bresson, a mother whose son lost his life to depression, and other family members and people who have lived with brain disorders accompany Feigal to his speaking engagements. His team has successfully communicated the message that spirituality is a critical component in healing, while offering first-hand information from personal experiences.
Feigal is president of Hennepin County’s affiliate of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), which sends speakers into hospitals to offer hope and resources to patients with brain disorders. He is also working with the Peace of Mind program, a national mental health organization that is striving to break the stigma attached to brain disorders. Feigal is writing public service announcements starring Martin Sheen, who is serving as a spokesperson for the organization. Feigal also runs workshops about depression and other health issues for local businesses.
In addition, Feigal is working closely with People, Inc., a Minnesota organization with 26 programs and residencies for people with brain disorders. He is serving as a speaker and teacher on the organization’s advisory council, speaking in churches and high schools around the country, and helping teachers develop curriculums appropriate for students with brain disorders.
In his own words, Feigal’s “PhD in life” has certainly enriched his local and national community, and is changing the lives of people with brain disorders by shattering the centuries-long stigma associated with these illnesses. If we could all learn from our experiences the way Pete Feigal has, nothing would seem impossible.