SALT LAKE CITY — Leah Harris' parents died young from a combination of mental illness and the "toxic effect of overmedication and broken spirits."
As Harris underwent treatment for her own mental health issues in her youth, professionals often told her she had a 50 percent chance of developing the same conditions as her parents — schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
"Who needs to hear that kind of message? It was really, really frightening. There was no mention of hope, no mention of recovery or a life," said Harris, now a national peer-support advocate and communication and development coordinator for the National Empowerment Center.
Harris was the keynote speaker of the second-annual Utah State Peer Conference held Friday at the downtown Radisson Hotel. The conference was sponsored by the Utah Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.
Harris said her childhood memories of her parents include her father sleeping 18 hours a day because of the psychotropic drugs he had been prescribed.
Harris' mother "did the best she could," but the shame of her mental illness within the family was so great no one spoke of it outside their home.
There were certainly no certified peer-support specialists to help, she said.
“She was on her own with the voices and a little kid,” Harris said.
Much of Harris' childhood was spent in foster care and living with her grandparents. She also spent time in psychiatric hospitals after suicide attempts, she said.
While undergoing inpatient treatment, Harris was often encouraged to write in journals. But she cooled on the practice once she understood that her journals were not an outlet for her to privately express her feelings but they were being read by staff members.
As someone who enjoyed writing as a creative outlet, Harris said she began to stifle her feelings.
As she got older, she became guarded about sharing much about her background with friends.
"When people talked about their childhood, I just got really quiet," she said.
After years of considering her life in terms of her diagnoses of borderline personality disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and suicide attempts, Harris said she realized there was tremendous power in redefining herself as someone who had dreams and ambitions.
When she started graduate school, though, Harris struggled with her mental health and her difficult past. So she went to the university health center, where caregivers recommended that she take medication and to read the book "Listening to Prozac."
Harris balked at the idea of medication because she and her parents had been overmedicated.
"I've been on every SSRI (serotonin-specific reuptake inhibitor) and never got any comfort," she said.
But Harris decided to buy the book. When she went to buy it, it wasn't available.
"Instead, I found 'Talking Back to the Prozac' by (psychiatrist) Peter Breggin. For me, it was a stroke of luck," she said.
The book, which explores "more humane alternatives for the treatment of depression," according to an Amazon.com book description, was a turning point for Harris.
She urged audience members to start seeing themselves as "the creators and narrators of their own lives."
Presently, Harris is the communications director of a national nonprofit base in Lawrence, Mass., created "to spread a message of recovery, empowerment, hope and healing to people with lived experience with mental health issues and trauma," according to its website.
As Harris joked, "I'm so thankful I work in a career that being crazy is an asset."
She urged people attending Friday's conference — many of them people who have been treated for mental illnesses — to continue to advocate on behalf of peers.
"I really do believe activism heals, among other things. Having some kind of cause, something to believe in, something to fight for, I can't overemphasize what a powerful thing that is. When I march in the street with others demanding human rights, there's no better feeling than that," she said.
Harris said she is grateful for a life that includes "a beautiful son, great friends and partners, all this richness my parents didn't have in their lives. I'm so grateful I was able to escape from that cycle."