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Rwenshaun Miller Confronted His Own Mental Illness to Become a Beacon for the Black Community 

A lighthouse in the storm

click to enlarge Rwenshaun Miller struggled with mental illness himself before launching Eustress, Inc. to help reach at-risk youth.
  • Rwenshaun Miller struggled with mental illness himself before launching Eustress, Inc. to help reach at-risk youth.

There came a time in 2013 when Rwenshaun Miller was convinced that his only option was to take his life.

Miller had spent the last three and a half years silently battling with bipolar disorder — self-medicating by going through a fifth of tequila every other day as he heard disembodied voices speaking to him on a regular basis.

Miller had been familiar with the three distinct voices in his head for years, although he didn't recognize them as belonging to anyone he knew. The voices eventually began telling him he'd be better off dead. That's when he took matters into his own hands. He purposefully overdosed on prescription pills twice but survived.

The third time, Miller decided he wouldn't leave survival to chance. In his north Charlotte townhome, he took the Smith & Wesson .40-caliber handgun he kept under the driver's seat of his car and put it to his head. When he pulled the trigger, the gun jammed.

In the following moments, Miller was overcome with a feeling of failure.

"All I could do was just sit there and cry, because I done failed three times at trying to take some type of control over my life," he says.

Five years later, Miller is the founder and executive director of Eustress Inc., a Charlotte nonprofit organization that works with clients who are struggling with mental illness, focusing on youth, athletes and the black community. On May 5, the American Psychiatric Association Foundation honored Miller with the APAF Award for Advancing Minority Mental Health.

On May 19, Eustress will host its third annual Mental Health Awareness Walk at Reedy Creek Park, followed by the inaugural Let's Talk About It Mental Health Awareness Gala at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture.

click to enlarge Miller [in green hat] and walkers at last year's Mental Health Awareness Walk at Park Road Park. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)
  • Miller [in green hat] and walkers at last year's Mental Health Awareness Walk at Park Road Park. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)

By the end of the year, Miller hopes to increase local accessibility to mental health care for youth and minorities by opening Eustress' first mental health triage facility in Charlotte, a place designed to help those struggling with mental illness regardless of income or insurance status.

Looking back on that fateful day in 2013, Miller won't shame his past self for the actions he took. "You have your lowest of your lows, especially when you're in the depression phase of bipolar disorder, and you want to take some type of control. A lot of times people look at suicide as, 'Oh, it's selfish,' or 'You're weak,' or 'That's an easy way out.' I don't see anything easy about trying to kill yourself," Miller says.

"I had so many thoughts going through my head, it wasn't just about me. I wanted control, yes, but then I also wanted to stop hurting. And in addition to that, I wanted my family to stop worrying about me. If I'm no longer here anymore, they don't have to worry about me anymore," Miller says. "All these things going through my head, it wasn't just about me. That was far from the case."

Still, Miller quickly realized his gun jamming was a chance for him to truly take control in a way he knew to be effective.

"That's what actually led me to this," Miller says, as he sits outside a Panera Bread at Northlake Mall between meetings with clients. "That's when I knew: 'Rwenshaun, you need to make a change.'"

Miller's battle began in August 2006, when he injured his knee as a sophomore at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. A defensive back on the football team and a star of track and field, he was sidelined.

click to enlarge Rwenshaun Miller (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)
  • Rwenshaun Miller (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)

He withdrew from his social circles, losing interest in everything that once enthused him. He stopped eating and eventually stopped sleeping, which he believes led to his "psychotic phase." In December, his family checked him into the Williams Inpatient Psychiatric Unit at Duke University Hospital.

"Me hearing voices, essentially that's what led me to the hospital, because my family picked up on it," Miller says. "I didn't actually actively seek help, it was forced upon me."

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to experience serious mental health problems than the general population. This can be due to a number of different factors, including the higher likelihood that black people will experience issues that put people at risk for mental illness, such as homelessness or exposure to violence.

Despite that startling statistic, only about 25 percent of the African American population will ever seek mental health care, compared to 40 percent of white people, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Distrust in the health care system, a lack of cultural competence by health professionals and socio-economic factors all play a role in that inequity, according to NAMI.

While hospitalized, Miller felt distrust in a system in which no one looked like him.

"I had a white man telling me that I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and the only thing that I'm thinking is, 'Yo, what do I need to do to get out of here? I don't care what else you've got to say, just what else do I need to do to get out of here?'" he says.

He was eventually discharged from the hospital before filing for a medical withdrawal from school and moving to Charlotte to live with his uncle. It was here that he met Dr. Kendell Jasper, his uncle's old fraternity brother who had since become a licensed clinical psychologist. Meeting Jasper changed everything for Miller.

"He definitely changed the game for me when it comes down to seeking therapy because he was a black man and he was cool, real cool," Miller says. "He made it OK for me to open up to him."

Jasper helped Miller find a medication regiment that worked for him, and things started to improve. But within a matter of months, Miller's life would begin to unravel.

click to enlarge Brandy Hamilton speaks at a recent press conference in uptown Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)
  • Brandy Hamilton speaks at a recent press conference in uptown Charlotte. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Brandy Hamilton loves to sing gospel songs. On a recent Thursday afternoon, she's standing in the lawn of the Mecklenburg County Courthouse in her bare feet leading a group of eight clergy members and former inmates of Mecklenburg County jails as they sing "We Shall Overcome."

Hamilton is here as a former inmate to speak against the use of solitary confinement in county jails. She tells the story of her arrest in 2016 when Hamilton says she was placed in solitary confinement for singing gospel songs during a mental health crisis.

She was between medications for bipolar disorder at the time of her arrest, she says, and barely remembers the incident, save for the confused reaction of members of the Direct Action Response Team when they rushed into her cell only to find a woman singing a song.

Hamilton, now 30, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after attempting suicide on December 27, 2010. When we meet outside the courthouse in early May of this year, she still hasn't decided whether she believes the diagnosis, which she says came after just a 10-minute meeting with two doctors.

Hamilton has tried multiple medications since her diagnosis, but none have worked. Following her suicide attempt in 2010, she was put on meds that made her too tired to function. After repeatedly falling asleep in class and then once while driving, she filed for a medical withdrawal from UNC Charlotte.

In 2016, she was hospitalized after an episode she believes was brought on by her prescription to Prozac, which she was later told should not be used to treat bipolar disorder.

Her experiences have left Hamilton distrustful of the health care system. She says her uncle, a pharmacist in Greensboro, has told her it may take some time to find the right mix of meds, but Hamilton is concerned about the cost and length of such efforts.

"I don't have time to be a guinea pig while you're practicing medicine. I still have to teach, to work, you know? I have to pay rent. So it's very hard," Hamilton says before going into other reasons she believes black people have a hard time seeking treatment.

"In the black community, we're really churchy ... a lot of us grow up as Christian," Hamilton says. "We believe, 'Oh, pray to Jesus. Pray it away. We think that's something you can do about it. And [health care practitioners] have done experiments with us in the past. So either we think we're going to pray it away, or there's a mistrust there, or we ain't got time to be a guinea pig."

Hamilton says that in 2016, she met with a black female psychologist who explained to her the spectrum of bipolar diagnoses, and that some cases are more serious than others. It was something no one had taken the time to go over with her in the past, and went against what she heard from other doctors, who made her feel as if she'd be on suicide watch for the rest of her life.

Although she remains skeptical of the diagnosis, meeting that psychologist was comforting to her.

"I could accept it better, and I had a better understanding," Hamilton says. "Maybe mine just isn't as bad as what they were describing before."

When I ask Dr. Jasper if the lack of African-American representation among doctors affects the numbers of black patients reaching out for help, he immediately agrees. He points out that, in his 42 years of life and 14 years of clinical psychology practice, he's only ever met two black male clinical psychologists, not including himself.

"I think there's improvement and we are seeing some improvement, but it's not improving enough to address the number of individuals in our community that are experiencing mental health issues."

click to enlarge Miller addresses the crowd at last year's walk. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)
  • Miller addresses the crowd at last year's walk. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)

Often times, he says, when black people do finally reach out, they won't reach out to professionals in the field.

"The reality is that [mental illness] happens in everyone's community. People aren't really warm to you talking about what your issues are and then addressing them," Jasper says. "What's different about our community is not only aren't we warm to dealing with it, when it comes time to provide your love and support, someone like myself is not the first person we would call. We're going to call our bishop, our minister, our family friends, we're not going to call a professional, because there's a huge mistrust of institutions and systems in our community, which has a level of validity to it considering how things have progressed for minorities in this country."

After about six months of taking his medications and working with Dr. Jasper, Miller was feeling better. He enrolled back in school, commuting to Chapel Hill from Charlotte two days a week, and soon thereafter stopped taking the meds altogether.

"It was just straight-up ignorance. When you start to feel better you try to treat it like a physical ailment," Miller says. "I felt better. I was like, 'OK, well this made me better so I'm good now, I'm back to normal Shaun.' And also with that, no one knew what was going on with me, so I could keep this in a silo, no one has to know, and I can get back to being regular Shaun."

Dr. Jasper, who played basketball at UNC Charlotte in the '90s, can relate to the attitudes of young athletes and why they often make mistakes similar to Miller's when going through treatment for a mental illness.

"[Athletes] are treated a little different, which lends itself to the idea that you have to overcome injury in order to get back on the playing surface," Jasper says "And if you view your mental illness as an injury, then your goal is to get back as quickly as you can or, in some instances, not express how hurt you really are."

Miller soon learned he was not better, as the voices returned. Over the next three and a half years, he continued to struggle in silence while self-medicating with tequila. The problems culminated in 2013 with his third suicide attempt and the Smith & Wesson that wouldn't fire.

Following that incident, Miller linked up with Dr. Jasper again. He returned to taking his meds, doing counseling work and focusing on self-care. In 2014, he launched a blog called Monumental Monomental, which he would later change to Eustress. The blog focused on the physical health aspects that go hand in hand with mental health.

click to enlarge Doing yoga at last year's walk. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)
  • Doing yoga at last year's walk. (Photo by Jon Strayhorn)

As the blog's popularity grew, he began getting feedback from folks who said they never discussed their mental health with anyone. Two of Miller's friends reached out to him via the blog, not knowing he was the anonymous author. They had never spoken to him about mental health in person, nor had they known of his struggle.

It was during this time that Miller began to realize that this was his calling. He acquired a master's degree in mental health counseling, and in the summer of 2015, he turned his blog into a 501(c)3 nonprofit.

During Miller's studies, he started to recognize some "holes" in what was being taught about mental health at a national level.

"A lot of research and stuff that is done in the mental health realm, it's not done on my people," Miller says. "And there are layers to that, as well. It's because we won't participate, but then you also don't have people that really care to go into depth into the minority population when it comes down to addressing these issues."

According to NAMI, there are differences in symptoms between white and black patients who may be suffering from a mental illness — symptoms that a culturally incompetent health care provider might miss.

For example, African Americans, especially women, are more likely to experience and mention physical symptoms related to mental health problems. Black men are more likely to be misdiagnosed with schizophrenia after bringing up symptoms of what might actually be post-traumatic stress disorder.

A lack of cultural understanding in mental health care became a focus for Miller.

"When I started noticing these holes, I was like, 'Well, how can we really serve a population if you don't know about the population?'" he says. "When you're diagnosing an individual, you have to consider the entire person. That comes down to their culture, their environment, their family history, all of these types of things. And it's hard to provide a diagnosis to someone just off of one sitting with them. But these are the things that are taught."

Miller also knows that half the struggle is in helping people in the black community feel comfortable enough to reach out. That's why he spends much of his time in schools and churches doing workshops as a way to reach young people at risk.

"It's OK to not be OK, and it's OK to talk about certain things," Miller says. "When I was raised, we lived by this creed: What happens in this house, stays in this house. You don't share certain things. You never wanted to be perceived as weak, especially as a man. Men don't show emotions. Men don't cry. We've got to dispel those myths and understand that men are people, too. We experience certain things and holding on to those things, it's a ticking time bomb, honestly."

But it's not just men living in that unsure state. When I catch up with Hamilton a few days after meeting her at the courthouse, she tells me she's been living out of her car since late April. I immediately recall what she told me about her anxieties regarding medication and being uninsured when I met her, before I knew of her living situation.

"My family really wants me to take these pills, but like, who is going to pay the rent while I'm getting regulated?" she asked me at the courthouse. "Because if I feel like a zombie, like in 2010 when I had to drop out of UNC Charlotte ... that was to my detriment."

Hamilton's plight is a reminder that for many in Charlotte, the arrival of Miller's triage can't come soon enough.

Stay tuned to Creative Loafing for Part 2 of this story later in May.

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