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Suicide in Fairfield: Iowa town struggles with mental health awareness

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Fairfield, Iowa
Fairfield is home to Maharishi University of Management, which pioneers “consciousness-based learning” and where all students and faculty practice the Transcendental Meditation technique. — photo by Matt Steele

When you live in a small town, you have a connection to just about everyone. With a recent string of suicides in my community in Fairfield, Iowa, it has felt personal every time, whether it was a classmate, childhood friend, neighbor or someone I saw out for a drink the weekend before.

Since mid-2008, 20 people have died by suicide in the greater Fairfield area, according to the county medical examiner. Four of the suicides have occurred since May of this year. Statewide, suicide rates are on the rise, going from 11.7 to 14.4 cases per 100,000 people from 2010 to 2013, surpassing the national average, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

At a recent event held by community organization Fairfield Cares, I listened as a woman with a calm but carrying voice recounted one of several suicide attempts from her past.

“Every time I hear of another suicide, I briefly relive that paralyzing darkness,” said Janet McDonald to a hushed room of about 150 people at the library early this month. “I have momentary but frequent flashbacks, of what it feels like to be gripped in the clutches of hopelessness and despair, and to then act on it.”

As McDonald speaks, my thoughts go to my cousin, whom I never had the chance to meet. John, a former football player at the University Iowa and a new father, was 21 years old when he took his own life, months after being diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1982. I imagine the fear he must have felt. I have a big family, and each member is an important presence in my life. I have a sudden feeling that there’s a place missing. I wonder what he was like; and if he had lived, what would our relationship be?

During National Suicide Prevention Month and just weeks after the universally loved comedian Robin Williams took his own life, groups like Fairfield Cares and the media have been drawing attention to the underreported threat suicide poses in the U.S., an epidemic that claims a life every 13.1 minutes according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. And while it doesn’t have one root cause, we now know that mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety or schizophrenia is present in more than 90 percent of cases, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The stigma that still surrounds mental illness in the U.S. is a burden to those already struggling. Yet in Fairfield, there’s an added layer of complexity to the issue. I grew up in the town’s Transcendental Meditation (TM) community, of which McDonald is a part. My parents were among thousands of baby boomers who moved to town in the late ‘70s to attend Maharishi’s university, to raise their children and to meditate in groups in golden domes. As young adults, my parents were inspired by Maharishi’s vision: “The purpose of life is the expansion of happiness,” he had said.

Growing up in Fairfield, I enjoyed the caring community and the freedom a small town opens up to a child. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I gained a real appreciation for meditation. I experienced chronic anxiety while studying in graduate school and coping with a serious illness in the family, and I found meditating, along with counseling, helped me stay calm.

Yet the recent suicides and the town’s response has driven home a suspicion I have felt for a while: that people’s determination to attain a perfect life, or enlightenment, has led to a culture of idealism and often a lack of acknowledgement of what’s really happening.

Many people in pursuit of Maharishi’s vision of peace, bliss and enlightenment have felt shame when dealing with mental and physical problems. In a tight-knit community that offers a sense of purpose and belonging, those with experiences outside of that picture ultimately face a fear of being cast out. I’ve heard people make offhand comments, such as “You only get cancer if you want cancer,” or “modern medicine is poison,” with little notion of how harmful and personally offensive I, and likely others, find them to be.

Social work professor Brené Brown explores the high correlation between shame and suicide in her famed TED talk, “Listening to Shame.” Perfectionism, she says, is a form of shame, in which we do everything in our power to prove our worth so we can avoid pain, shame and vulnerability. “Shame is the gremlin who says, you’re not good enough,” said Brown.

In my experience, people who come to Fairfield to learn to meditate are often looking for answers in life. Here, they find a comforting vision of what a perfect world could look like where these difficult feelings don’t exist. However, this belief can backfire. As Brown explains, “shame flourishes with secrecy, silence and judgment.”

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A Voice in a Void

Psychologist Dr. Scott Terry is on a mission to open the community’s eyes. Terry, who moved to Fairfield two years ago after founding counseling centers throughout the Midwest, both condemns and supports the TM movement.

“Meditation is not a panacea to life’s problems,” he said. “I tell my clients to meditate like I tell them to exercise: it’s a tool, and it’s about what you do with it. If you misuse a tool, it can be more destructive than helpful.”

Terry learned to meditate when he was 12 years old, which he said helped him overcome hyperactivity, where he would sit in class for hours, rocking and ripping out chunks of his hair.

“I was literally freaking out,” he said. “I started to meditate, and my ADD didn’t go away, but my hyperactivity did.”

Since taking up his practice in Fairfield, Terry has many patients in the meditating community. In the past year, he said, he’s become increasingly disturbed by trends he’s seen emerging in town.

“There’s a huge amount of suicidal behavior in Fairfield,” he said.

Terry said he’s run across a variety of troubling attitudes regarding suicide. He’s seen people mistake manic behavior — sometimes characterized by a person thinking he or she is acting as god — as enlightenment. When such situations result in a suicide, he said families often won’t acknowledge the death as a suicide but as an act of an enlightened being.

“People are in complete denial about what’s going on,” he said. “It’s so fucked up.”

As someone who knows several grieving families, I see this as a coping mechanism for an otherwise unbearable situation. But clearly, the precedent is dangerous. Terry said he’s seen patients contemplating suicide because they’d seen other enlightened community members make that choice.

Suicides are also underreported in Fairfield, said Terry. This summer, Terry said he spoke to a woman who has kept her sister’s suicide a secret out of fear of losing her job. “The stigma is so dramatic here, people are afraid,” he said.

He’s also seen individuals, families and even counselors recommend meditation or herbal remedies in place of medication to treat serious mental illnesses such as bipolar disorder. “This is extremely dangerous,” he said.

In June, after three people in the community died by suicide within three weeks of each other, Terry reached a boiling point. He drafted an open letter titled “Mental Health issues that urgently need to be explored now in our community.” Within the 10-page letter, he outlined all of the unhealthy stigmas unique to Fairfield, as well as pointed out the inadequacies of Maharishi University of Management’s (MUM) mental health services and how they could be corrected. The letter, he said, “went viral” on campus, winning him allies as well as enemies.

A Gradual Transformation

In the past year, a dialogue has opened up in the community that I didn’t think possible in the past. When a former student killed herself in July 2013 after struggling with depression, a few friends and community members started a Facebook group in hopes of starting a discussion about depression. There, people I’ve known for years began opening up for the first time about their depression, anxiety, bipolar disorders and even suicide attempts.

It also served as a place to debate the value of modern medicine. When one woman posted an article claiming turmeric extract cured depression, it started a confrontational conversation thread about people’s judgment regarding medications.

In the forum, Minca Borg, a founding member of Fairfield Cares, also discussed MUM’s subjective policies. While attending MUM from 2008 to 2012, she said administrators prohibited students from playing a film about bullying and suicide because of strict criteria for events hosted on campus. “The idea was to create a safe space for discussing LGBTQ issues and bullying,” said Borg. “The policy wording was very subjective: ‘to protect the consciousness of the students.’”

But according to Terry, “MUM is seriously changing. They’re hearing the wake-up call.” He and the executive vice president of MUM, Craig Pearson, began the Fairfield Mental Health Alliance, a working group that’s hosting a free seminar on campus in October, where a panel of psychology experts (including Terry) will discuss proper treatment of mental illness and suicide prevention. The group is also working on a website, which will act as a central hub for all mental health services in town.

Among MUM faculty, Pearson is spearheading the effort to open a dialogue about mental health. “We want to empower people to reach out and seek professional help,” he said.

He’s helping to draft a campus-wide statement, which he said the administration will print and disburse to students this fall. “It’s basically emphasizing a common-sense approach,” he said.

In a pre-release draft Pearson shared with me, the statement encourages people to seek help from a licensed professional when experiencing mental health issues. It does, however, include language favoring natural medicine and acknowledges the value of modern drugs for potentially “serious or life-threatening” conditions.

He said the university, which currently has only one psychologist on campus running student support services, is also considering offering therapy at the campus’s new wellness clinic that currently offers basic services such as flu treatment.

The most powerful part of the statement in my mind, addressed the need for authenticity and openness in the community, saying, “We want people to feel free to talk about themselves as they really are, not just the ideals they aspire to.”

This is a significant departure from the values I grew up with, where idealism often boxed out any room for honest discussions. At the Fairfield Cares event, this newfound openness was tangible as suicide survivor Tom Allen shared his story. “I don’t care about the stigma of going to a psychiatrist and taking medication,” said Allen. “I can’t afford to care.”

Allen says stigma and isolation are what keep people from getting help, whether they meditate or not. “Isolation is part of the boundary we can break.”

While Fairfield’s issues with treating depression and other serious mental illnesses are unique, the stigmas surrounding diseases such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are prevalent in all communities. Clearly, the ‘ideal’ approach is to talk these issues through, and find the right mix between healthy, holistic living, and modern psychiatric medicines.

I for one, am happy to see Fairfield setting the record straight: Meditation can do many things, but curing cancer, schizophrenia, severe depression or Parkinson’s isn’t one of them.

Donna Schill Cleveland is the editor in chief of iPhone Life magazine. She likes to write about tech, health and women’s issues. She holds a masters degree from the University of Iowa School of Journalism & Mass Communication.


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