By Katie O’Connor  

Richmond Times Dispatch

It’s been 13 years, but it’s still difficult for Pat Myers to talk about as she sits in the house that the organization she helped start uses for support group meetings.

A double picture frame sits beside her. On one side, her son Justin smiles serenely. He had shaved his head the summer before that photo — his senior portrait — was taken, but let it grow out at his mother’s request, so in the image he has a full head of deep brown hair.

The other side of the frame holds a poem titled “Christmas in Heaven.”
About 13 years ago, Myers had participated in a family workshop program for the loved ones of those with mental illnesses, and when it drew near the end, she said she had bonded so much with the other participants that she suggested continuing to meet as a support group.
“So I approached my church and the pastor who was there at the time was 100 percent supportive,” she said. “And we kind of had started to lay the groundwork for a meeting, time, place, everything, and then my son took his life. So that was a catalyst for everything to just kind of start and fall into place.”

FACES — Family Advocacy Creating Education and Services — grew out of that tragedy. Justin had been battling bipolar disorder, and he was 20 when he killed himself.

Since the Chesterfield County-based group began in 2004, it has become a haven for families dealing with the same challenges Myers went through, an advocate for awareness of mental health and an education resource for the community.

“We are involved in a number of initiatives to support the families of those affected by serious brain disorders,” said Candy Watt, who serves as co-chairwoman of FACES along with Myers. “We use the term ‘brain disorder’ because we want people to recognize that these are diseases, these are not mental choices made by the person who has schizophrenia, or one of these other diseases, to just be difficult.”

The families of those with a serious mental illness often struggle to find appropriate resources, to be understood by their community and to keep a grasp on their daily lives. Myers knows those struggles all too well.
“Family members need resources,” she said. “I felt from the very beginning of the time when my son was ill that I didn’t know where to turn. And even people that I went to — the pastor of my church was wonderful, but he said to me, ‘Pat, I don’t know how to help you.’ It was such a kind of unknown territory at the time.”

FACES was created to fill that gap. It hosts twice-monthly support groups at a house provided by the St. Mark’s United Methodist Church in Midlothian, along with monthly community education meetings, and it continues to advocate for the families it serves.

Participation in the support group fluctuates, and about six to 12 people typically come to meetings, which are open to the public. But FACES has ensured it has a broader reach by working with other organizations in Chesterfield.

Its members helped to initiate and are part of the Chesterfield Suicide Awareness and Prevention Coalition, which was started in 2015.
FACES also advocated heavily for the launch of Chesterfield Community Services Board’s Crisis Intervention Training, which teaches first responders how to appropriately handle individuals with mental health issues or other intellectual disorders.

That was a vital development for FACES, because too often family members feel their only option is to call 911 when a loved one with a mental health issue has gotten out of hand.

“(Myers) and her group were instrumental in getting (Crisis Intervention Training) off the ground,” said John Tyler, crisis services manager with Chesterfield Community Services Board.

Myers knows firsthand the importance of first responders understanding mental illness. She described a traumatic experience when she had called 911 for Justin and police officers used tear gas on him and pulled him onto her front porch.

“It was horrible,” she said. “It was a nightmare. People just don’t realize just how bad things were and how much better they are now. And that’s what’s gratifying, that it is better.”

She knows it’s better because she has advocated for the changes that make it better, and she still sees and can empathize with the families who are living with it through the support groups.

“It just gives families a place to be able to talk confidentially about what’s going on and to have somebody say, ‘I get it,’” Myers said.
Myers remembers what it’s like for these families. She does her work to help them, but, most of all, she does it for Justin.
“He’s the reason I do this,” she said. “I don’t want his legacy to be, ‘Oh, he took his life.’ His legacy is that we’re helping other people because of him.”
(804) 649-6813
Twitter: @__KatieOConnor

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