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Woman an advocate for mentally ill

May 25, 1998|By TERRY TALBERT

Since emerging from the darkness of severe depression in the early 1990s, Peggy Reynolds has spent her life shedding light on what for many is the enigma of mental illness.

Her accomplishments stand as an example of what a person who has suffered from mental illness can do.

Five years ago, not long after her own recovery from depression, Reynolds started working a few hours a week as an advocate for the mentally ill at the Washington County Office of Consumer Advocacy.

Today she is the agency's assistant program director.

"Consumers" are people who suffer from mental illness. It's the mission of the Office of Consumer Advocacy, and Reynolds' personal mission, to abolish stigmas through education, lobby for legislation affecting the mentally ill, and provide peer support.

Recently, during Mental Health Awareness Month, Reynolds talked about myths surrounding mental illness and her work to erase them.

Reynolds, 72, said mentally ill people have long been ostracized and at times ridiculed by others who don't understand them.

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"Mental illness does not mean there's nothing upstairs," Reynolds said. "It affects your mind in the sense of being an illness. It does not affect your integrity."

Reynolds is a case in point. She is intelligent, articulate and has a well-defined sense of humor. She works hard. She cares hard.

Reynolds has overcome a host of odds over the past 10 years to be where she is today. Her husband died at 45. Her mother passed away the same year. She raised three kids on her own.

In 1984, reverse thrust from a passing plane blew her off a loading ramp at a Nassau airport, damaging her kidney. She later lost her companion of 15 years.

A couple of years ago, Reynolds became engaged to a man she hadn't seen in 50 years. They rediscovered each other and fell in love. Three weeks before they were to be married, he died of pancreatic cancer.

Last fall, Reynolds was hospitalized with congestive heart failure. Then she came down with pneumonia.

"Like a cat, I think I've got nine lives," she said, laughing.

At times, Reynolds' life has come full circle.

She serves today on the Citizens Advisory Board at the Finan Center, where she was almost committed during her depression.

Reynolds was trying to go to school and hold down several jobs when she dropped out of Boston University decades ago. Two years ago, with the help of educational credits she got for attending work-related seminars, she finally earned her bachelor's degree.

"I'm proud of that," she said.

Reynolds is also proud of the awards she has won in the past three years for her work on behalf of the mentally ill.

The award that most touched her was one she didn't expect. She was given a certificate of recognition for "outstanding achievements in community living and in attainment of personal goals" by the Maryland Association of Psychiatric Support Services. Her boss and friend, Wini DeHaven, nominated Reynolds for the honor.

Reynolds serves on the Mental Health Advocacy Board and the Task Force on Homelessness. She is a member of the county's Joint Task Force on Mental Health and Corrections, which has changed the way mentally ill prisoners are treated at the county jail.

Reynolds has told her story to psychology students, to nursing students and at professional seminars.

She coordinates a peer support group at the Office of Consumer Advocacy twice a month. She has worked on a listening line for people who need someone to talk to.

Reynolds has given "sensitivity training" in mental health problems to sheriff's deputies and Hagerstown police officers.

She has brought her success story and her humor-filled insights to a community she says is in part mired in the darkness of ignorance and misunderstanding of mental illness. She feels that darkness is as threatening as the depression she conquered.

Reynolds said she would want her epitaph to read simply that she was "a good person - the best I know how to be - and a single parent who was honest and caring, and enjoyed helping others."

Reynolds had some advice for how to live life, especially as people get older.

"Stay active," she said. "I truly believe that adversity makes you stronger. Deal with it, accept it and go on. We only have one chance in this life. There is no dress rehearsal, so live every day as if it was your last."

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