August 5, 2010

Why I am an Advocate, by Brandon Staglin

I have schizophrenia, and sometimes I think about whether I have let my illness define my life. I work for my family’s nonprofit, International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO), as a mental health advocate. If you asked me when I was a kid what work I would want to do, the last thing I would have said was to take on a family enterprise. I used to value my individuality above anything else, and dreaded being corrupted by conformity. Thanks in part to my illness, my values have shifted since then.

Brandon Staglin

I had a psychotic break in 1990, the summer after my freshman year at Dartmouth College. A friend managed to get me to a psychiatry ward. At first, I could not accept that I had a mental illness. I had a life plan, to be an astronautical engineer! I would not be cut down by a schizophrenia diagnosis.

Three nights into my first hospitalization I decided I would get out of the psych ward immediately. I was unable to sleep, furious, and refused to take meds. A nurse was on her way with an injection to make me sleep. I would not let her violate my consciousness! In fact, I would just knock the syringe from her hand and walk out of the unit before she could do anything. …Of course, when I tried that, several nurses wrestled me onto a bed, strapped me down and gave me the injection.

Now I understand their perspective, but at the time I felt mistreated. Still, when I woke up the next morning I realized I needed to get better somehow and get on with my life. Hard though it was, I agreed to a treatment program.

I was able to return to college, get my engineering degree, and secure a job designing communications satellites. I kept my illness under my hat.

When I had my second psychotic episode in 1996, it became clear to me that I could no longer work as an engineer. The job was too stressful for me, I admitted, with disappointment. But, my wonderful parents offered me a position in the winery they own and run, Staglin Family Vineyard.

A few years later, a film director was interviewing our family for a wine film he was making for international release. The time came when the director asked my parents what had inspired them to start their annual fundraiser for mental health research, the Music Festival for Mental Health. I made a split-second decision. I did not want to hide my illness, such a large part of my life, any more.

“I can tell you about that.” I told him my story.

The director, a little hesitant, asked, “Do you want me to keep this out of the film?”

I blinked, and said, “No, by all means put it in!”

Although my disclosure (and our mental health advocacy) ended up on the cutting-room floor, a change had taken place in me. I volunteered to help produce the Music Festival in its next year.

I began to talk more openly about my disorder. People were interested! When asked why I was so gung ho about helping to raise awareness, I explained that mentally ill people could be misunderstood by the public. Often, even caregivers found it hard to understand their patients’ suffering. I realized as I spoke that I wanted people with mental illness to be understood, to retain their sense of self-worth. I thought then, “This is something I can help with.” When asked, I began giving interviews for local radio and TV.

The next Fall a Music Festival patron, Liz Browning, sent me a link to a Seattle Post-Intelligencer article about her son’s experience with schizophrenia. The health care system had failed to treat Marc adequately, the article reported, and after years of progress of his disease, he may have been beyond therapy. I was heartbroken for her and for Marc. This issue was much, much bigger than what I had experienced.

Since then I have met many people whose experiences with their own illnesses have inspired me. In September 2009 I appeared in the BringChange2Mind PSA. Talking with the Closes, the other principals and the people who helped to produce it showed me how much passion there is behind this cause. The momentum of that day caught me up and has never let me go.

Today, my job as communications director and blog-writer at IMHRO enables me to pursue my own passion for the cause. Has my condition defined my life? Yes, to some degree–and I like it. It has given me a new direction which I hope makes people’s lives better. And, it has led me to compassion and patience. I love my life and would live it the same way again, illness and all.

To learn more about the Staglin family and the International Mental Health Research Organization (IMHRO) please visit their homepage:

To watch a video clip of Brandon and his mom, Shari, sharing their story with BringChange2Mind, please visit this link:


  1. Glad to see there are some fellow professionals out there with this illness. Good for you.

    I just completed On Gratitude which is the adventures of a schizophrenic in recovery from nicotine. This related topic you might enjoy deals with the emotional effects and works with beliefs about nicotine in the 4th year of recovery. Delightful. To find out more visit my website at From there on pages 1 and 2 you will get a little slideshow, the release announcement for the book and some other interesting things to see. True story. Heal Responsibly, Jean Manthei, MA, LPC, CACIII

    Comment by Jean Marie Manthei, MA, LPC, CACIII — August 6, 2010 @ 4:11 pm

  2. Brandon, thank you for this wonderful post. This “fight” will get easier with every strong, passionate and intelligent person helping to move it forward. Cinda

    Comment by Cinda Johnson — August 8, 2010 @ 8:31 pm

  3. […] promised in my last post, Linea Johnson has been kind enough to post my “guest post,” Why I am an Advocate, on the BringChange2Mind blog. If you’d like, click over and give it a look. Thanks again, […]

    Pingback by Please visit BringChange2Mind's blog to read my "guest post" » Healing the Mind — August 9, 2010 @ 10:30 pm

  4. I too found it hard to accept at first, but here I am now…over ten years later…and writing a book about bipolar as well as running a website to help bring awareness and support. I don’t think I’d change where I’ve ended up even if you paid me to!

    Comment by Marybeth — August 16, 2010 @ 1:42 pm

  5. Great post, as always! We’re always amazed at the clarity of your writing, and how important it is in the goal of creating a community of people who care about mental illness. Thanks for sharing and for being such an effective advocate.

    Comment by Garen Staglin — August 16, 2010 @ 6:34 pm

  6. I am blown away by your courage and insight. As a parent of someone recently diagnosed with schizophrenia, I need to hear stories of hope like yours. Thank you so much for all you do. (And thank you to your entire family for stepping up to the plate with their philanthropy).

    Comment by Margaret — August 24, 2010 @ 2:20 pm

  7. Jean Marie, Cinda, Marybeth, Margaret and Dad: Thanks very much! Reading encouraging comments like yours makes it all worthwhile. Kudos to all of you for doing what you do to help people with mental illness! 🙂

    Comment by Brandon Staglin — August 26, 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  8. Neurological mood/thought disorders such as BP and schizophrenia are genetic brain illnesses that effect thinking and behavior. They are diagnosible, treatable and able to be well managed when individuals,family and friends accept the diagnosis and actively work for medical stabilization and lifestyle changes that optimize health. I have a dream that soon and very soon neurological mood and thought disorders will be given the respect and dignity that illnesses like cancer and diabetes are given. Secrets, shame and stigma kill. Truth, facts and practically applied scientific research from all disciplines in the neurosciences and social sciences save lives. People with genetic mood/thought disorders that impair brain/behavior health must be supported in pursuing proper sleep, nutrition and exercise lifestyle patterns so that any medication used can actually keep them stable and healthy. Highly intelligent, well educated families that have mood/thought disorders throughout their family tree need to be strong and courasgeous and advocate for societal, legal and academic research changes NOW in an open and honest forum.

    Comment by Carrie Pier Matson — September 3, 2010 @ 7:06 am

  9. Thanks for sharing. I admire you tremendously & hope to provide the positive support as your parents did for you to my daughter who suffers with her difficulties. ;-}

    Comment by La Duchessa Lisa — September 10, 2010 @ 9:35 pm

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