PTSD Awareness Month has come and gone again (it was in June), but post-traumatic stress is no respecter of calendars, and PTSD awareness is always needed.
Post-traumatic stress disorder develops as a result of severe trauma, such as sexual violence, actual or threatened death, military combat, torture or being kidnapped. According to PTSD United, an estimated 8% of Americans have PTSD at any given time, totaling 24.4 million people – the same as the population of Texas.
There are lots of ways to boost your PTSD awareness, but one of the best is simply talking to someone who lives with the condition. I talked to Mike Skinner.
Skinner, 61, is a musician, father of five, and mental health advocate who was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder in the early 1990s, after a turbulent childhood where he says he was subject to “all types” of abuse.
Today Skinner powers his advocacy with The Surviving Spirit, a website-newsletter-organization-change agent Skinner created “to promote Hope, Healing and Help for those impacted by trauma, abuse and mental health concerns through the use of the creative arts.” The group has a speaker’s bureau, media center, abundant material on trauma and recovery, and a newsletter archive that goes back to 2008.
In the following interview, Skinner talks about trauma, recovery, art and music, and advocacy – along with a few choice words for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Jenny Westberg: When were you first diagnosed with PTSD?
Mike Skinner: I got diagnosed in January of 1993. And what happened was, I wasn’t aware I was dealing with depression, probably the whole year before – or probably the better part of my life, because of all the trauma I had been through. And I was dealing with post-traumatic stress, which I was not aware of.
But I was still able to function. I worked a lot – I was a workaholic, did all those things, but eventually I was just running out of energy. I had a nervous breakdown. And everything was voluntary, the hospitals and other things. But there was the mistreatment.
I spent a lot of time learning about trauma and abuse. I also learned – I’m reading your article about eating right, learning and really getting informed about what I was dealing with. And also just listening to other folks – peers, folks that were struggling, and realized they too were hurting, but it was unresolved trauma and abuse.
Basically, I’d get angry at it! And I said, ‘I can change, or I can keep being sad about it.’ And then I started advocating – and here I am still today, still doing it. And I will continue to do it.
JW: What kinds of things do you do as an advocate?
MS: I do my advocacy through songs, writing, public speaking and workshops, creating awareness. I try to help break down the stigma and the silence.
There’s so much discrimination, and not just for those of us who are impacted by it, but those around us. The whole thing – the discrimination, the fear that people have about us. I don’t like the term “mentally ill,” but that’s what society uses, and it’s those kinds of words that make people shun us, like we have the plague, and that just makes it worse. “Mentally ill.” That’s what it sounds like – like we have the plague, like “I can’t touch you!”
“I said, ‘I can change, or I can keep being sad about it.’ And then I started advocating.” – Mike Skinner
And it’s hard on the family too. My ex of 21 years, she couldn’t take it anymore, and she divorced me. She wanted nothing to do with it.
So that’s part of my advocacy too. People that are around us, they also need help.
JW: How did you get started?
MS: I actually started the advocacy because of the way I was being mistreated. When I had my breakdown – breakthrough, if you will – back in ’93, there was mistreatment by the medical providers, the community, and even friends and family.
[In the mental health system] I was treated like a second-class citizen, and that just made me angry. But when I did reach out – and I don’t mean to knock them, folks like NAMI, but everything I heard was that I had a ‘diseased brain.’ I bought that for two years, but then I really started looking into the trauma and the abuse in my life. I didn’t have a diseased brain. I was affected by what happened to me.
And medical [providers] were were just making it worse. I was one of those folks who had a toxic reaction to the medications I was on. And they were treating me – I mean, they knew I had a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress and major depression, and yet they were treating me like I fit into their schizophrenia-bipolar model – that was my impression.
JW: What’s your view on NAMI now?
MS: Again, don’t get me wrong – in the beginning, some of the folks in the NAMI support groups were very helpful to me. But then, again, it was ‘take your meds’ and ‘you have a diseased brain’ – no! I was a functioning human being. I did a lot of things – I was happily married, I had kids, I was a musician, I had a life – and then I was having some trouble, and they’re just telling me I have a diseased brain?
I know lots of nice folks in NAMI, [but] unfortunately, NAMI is driven by that ‘diseased brain’ model, and sadly, they are funded mostly by the pharmaceutical companies, so that shapes their polices and mindset. I wish NAMI would start asking, “What happened to you?” and not, “What’s wrong with you?”
“The harsh reality is, some parents are to blame.” – Mike Skinner
I also wish NAMI National and all of its affiliates would pick up a copy of The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma by Bessel van der Kolk, MD. There are all kinds of studies and research that show that the majority of us given the diagnosis of a “mental illness” are actually dealing with trauma and abuse. This book could be a good start for NAMI to rethink how they have been doing things. To stay silent and in denial of the trauma and abuse in people’s lives is wrong and so darn harmful.
John Briere, Ph.D., said: ‘If we could somehow end child abuse and neglect, the 800 pages of the DSM – and the need for the easier explanations such as DSM-IV Made Easy: The Clinician’s Guide to Diagnosis – would be shrunk to a pamphlet in two generations.
JW: What are your thoughts now regarding NAMI’s use of “brain diseased” and “brain disordered”?
MS: To use these terms, “brain diseased” or “brain disordered,” is wrong. I find them offensive and derogatory.
JW: And another NAMI concept, “mental illness as a no-fault disease”?
MS: Again, people need to look at the trauma and abuse in people’s lives and how it impacts their mind, body and spirit. To label our experiences and our suffering as a “mental illness” falls far short of what is really happening in someone’s life and it is so darn stigmatizing. And “parents are not to blame, period”? The harsh reality is, some parents are to blame.
JW: What role do music and art play in your recovery – and your advocacy?
Creative art, in and of itself, is healing. And I think everybody is creative. Obviously there are those who do it professionally, but everybody has some creativity in them. I believe it’s a great way to deal with whatever it is you’re dealing with at the time.
“I still have dark times [that] may set me back for the day. But I know that I can say to myself, ‘It’s going to pass. I’m going to be okay.’” – Mike Skinner
For myself as a musician, whether I sit down and play the drums, or play the guitar, or just listening to someone else writing a song – I love seeing what other people are doing with their art. It’s a great way to get out of yourself, and a great way to reaffirm that you can do something. It’s a part of wellness and can create change, awareness.
I have my songs – my angry songs, my sad songs, but also songs of joy, and love and life – because, you know, there’s more to us than a diagnosis. And it makes me happy. I’m blessed that people have liked my songs.
JW: What’s something you’re proud of as an advocate?
MS: This is huge for me: The Surviving Spirit Newsletter. It reaches so many and is shared with others, offering some “Hope, Healing & Help” for those impacted by trauma, abuse and mental health concerns.
JW: Where are you are in your recovery now?
MS: I believe I’m going to be on this healing journey the rest of my life, because the nature and severity of the trauma I experienced as a young boy and a teenager, then as an adult, is pretty significant, and it’s left its mark on me. [Today] I’m in a much better state. I’m in a relationship, and with my girlfriend, we do things together and have fun. To have fallen in love again–! I take delight in simple things. Like today, I just went and picked raspberries, and earlier today, I was weeding in the garden. The simple act of weeding or putting mulch around the flowers – I’m finding joy in simple things again.
I still have dark times, dissociation, when some memory, some feeling, has impacted me in some way, and it may set me back for a couple hours. It may set me back for the day. But I know that I can say to myself, ‘It’s going to pass. I’m going to be okay.’”
Mike Skinner shared these quotes :
“BE the change you want to see in the world.” Mohandas Gandhi
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” Martin Luther King, Jr.
Listen to Mike Skinner’s music:
Live performances of “Joy” and “Brush Away Your Tears” by Mike Skinner
“Joy” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?
“Brush Away Your Tears” – https://www.youtube.com/watch?
Visit his sites:
Further Reading on PTSD
PTSD Basics (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)
APA Fact Sheet: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder – Changes in DSM-5 (American Psychiatric Association)
Did Civil War Soldiers Have PTSD? (Smithsonian.com)
Timeline: Mental illness and war through history (Minnesota Public Radio)
“Epidemiology of PTSD” by Jaimie L. Gradus, DSc, MPH (U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs)