After decades of struggling with substance abuse and undiagnosed mental illness, John Schrader began to put his mental health first, and now he helps others do the same.

Schrader is a peer support specialist at National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Arizona, and he’s part of the 72 percent of people living with a mental illness who can recover — a statistic NAMI uses to describe those who can improve their capacity to lead a fulfilling life that isn’t dominated by their mental illness.

The youngest of four siblings, Schrader moved to Tucson from Detroit in 1960 when he was just a toddler. He says that being the hippie era, he followed in the footsteps of his siblings and he started using drugs at an early age — heroin, cocaine. But he was just a “weekend warrior” when it came to his partying. His family all worked together in the family business, building houses. He was raised with a strong work ethic and that kept him on track — for a time.

Then, in 1982, when he was 23, his oldest brother died in a motorcycle accident, flying head first into the pavement at Country Club and Speedway.

Looking back, Schrader says his brother’s death probably marked the beginning of his struggles, but his family, like the society at large, didn’t talk about mental health. Schrader was newly married to his high school sweetheart. He soon had two little kids to take care of. He didn’t know how to grieve his brother, so he didn’t. But despite his family’s silence, Schrader says his brother’s death destroyed them.

In Pima County 200,000 people will experience a mental illness every year, according to NAMI. And because of stigma, many people don’t get treatment for eight to 10 years after the onset of symptoms, says Clarke Romans, executive director of NAMI Southern Arizona.

Romans says stigma around mental illness is a smothering influence that takes amazing resilience to overcome. To drive home his point, he compares how people are treated differently whether recovering from a physical ailment or a mental illness.

“If you have breast cancer and recover from it, everybody’s cheering you on,” he says. “But if you have bipolar disorder, nobody’s cheering you — even if you get better.”

Romans says that when people have a genetic predisposition to mental illness, stress or trauma can often be the trigger that sets it off. And it’s not uncommon that people living with untreated mental illness turn to drugs as a way to self medicate. This can lead to a criminal record, which makes it even harder to recover and integrate back into society.

When Schrader got divorced in 1992, “the wheels completely came off the bus,” he says. He got arrested and charged with drug possession and was ordered by a court into a sixth-month program at the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center, where he first received counseling and began to address his addiction issues.

It wasn’t until a decade later, continuing to struggle with addiction, that he checked himself into a six-month rehab program by choice. He was finally diagnosed with PTSD and depression and began to address his mental health.

“I don’t know if my substance abuse issues were a symptom of my mental health issues or if my mental health issues were a symptom,” Schrader said. “You know, what came first — the chicken or the egg?”

Over the years, Schrader often turned to the 12-step recovery used in Narcotics Anonymous, but it never seemed to stick, and mental health was rarely addressed there. A decade after his diagnosis, he had another relapse, this time in his mid-50s. He went to local behavioral health agency La Frontera, where a case manager first suggested he take a class at NAMI.

He took classes to become a peer support specialist and now teaches others living with mental illness to offer support to their peers. People who go through this training are eligible to get certified through the state, like Schrader is, and facilitate classes themselves.

Julie Drizin also trained to be a peer support specialist, and now she works part time at NAMI as an advocate, offering one-on-one support to NAMI clients. As an advocate, Drizin helps people living with a mental illness and their family members understand their rights, obtain services and navigate the mental health and legal systems.

She works three days a week in a little office at NAMI’s east-side center. Her little long-haired dachshund mix accompanies her to work, and after making his rounds at the office, settles down next to her where he comforts her and her clients the rest of the day.

Drizin, who is 49, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when she was 20 after having a psychotic break. She was working in human resources and felt she had no purpose at work and was dealing with sexual harassment, as well as marital problems at home.

One day, she just got in her car and drove 120 mph down the highway with no destination in mind. Her then-husband later found her far out of town in a hotel room. She went to a hospital and got on some medication.

She later got divorced and changed careers. She got a job in her new field, interior design. But again, her work environment was stressful, and she was dealing with sexual harassment. After another psychotic break and hospitalization, she lost her job. She was worn out. About seven years ago, she reluctantly decided to go on disability.

“That was very depressing for me because it was a loss of power and purpose,” she says.

Her job at NAMI has changed that — she has purpose while still being able to cope with all the stresses of daily life.

Drizin says for the people she works with, the most important resources are stable housing, adequate health insurance and psychiatric care.

Since the for-profit company Cenpatico Integrated Care, now Arizona Complete Health, began overseeing Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System’s behavioral health services in 2015, leaders in the industry say behavioral and mental health services have experienced constant change and turmoil. Many behavioral health providers, including NAMI, were forced to cut their already threadbare workforce.

With Cenpatico drastically reducing payments to NAMI over the last few years, the nonprofit has had to let go of a third of its staff. Romans says this means cutbacks on things like advocacy work and peer-to-peer classes. Other programs were cut entirely, like education for parents of children with mental illness.

NAMI Southern Arizona had 185 volunteers put in over 11,000 hours in 2018, according to NAMI’s annual impact report. And even on a shoestring budget, the nonprofit was able to support 2,400 people last year through their outreach programs.

NAMI’s biggest revenue source comes from the NAMI Walk fundraiser, where one-third of the nonprofit’s yearly budget is raised. Tucson’s 13th annual NAMI Walk was on Saturday at Kennedy Park. About 1,500 people took part in the walk and another 1,000 attended, according to Communications director Christina Bickelmann. By Saturday, NAMI raised 91 percent of its $140,000 goal, which the group will keep fundraising for until June 6. That money will go to fund the programs, advocacy, education and training for the coming year.

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But the NAMI Walk isn’t just about raising money. It’s about breaking the stigma around mental illness.

Romans says reducing stigma is critical to encouraging people to get help long before a mental illness reaches a breaking point.

And even after a breaking point, when everything seems to fall apart, recovery means getting back to living with meaning, usually through a combination of a support network, therapy and medication, even if one’s life is irrevocably changed.

At 60, Schrader says things aren’t perfect, but he’s pretty content.

He’s been volunteering at NAMI since January 2016 and says helping others is imperative to his recovery. He also gets paid a small stipend for facilitating classes. He’s been clean for five years and doesn’t do 12-step recovery anymore because he gets the support he needs through behavioral health care.

He checks in regularly with his behavioral health provider, sees a therapist, does group therapy and mindfulness exercises. At this point, he says, he’s a “pretty reliable, steady guy.”

“I enjoy being able to get up in the morning and have a little bit of peace, and not have to run around and do a bunch of things that are anti-productive,” he says. “I can enjoy just making it through the day.”

He still runs his family business, with his sister, and takes care of his 91-year-old father. And last year, Schrader got a rescue dog — a Jack Russell terrier named Miley, who he says came into his life at an important time.

In the last year, Schrader also met two grown daughters for the first time. And in January, during a 20-below cold spell, he went back to Detroit to meet his first grandchild — a little girl who will turn 1 in May. Schrader still doesn’t talk with his family much about his mental health, but he’s starting to. Being open and honest with his four daughters has been a big part of his continued success.

But he still struggles. He says there are three stages of mental illness and recovery. Stage one is crisis. Stage two is meeting basic needs: housing, nutrition, hygiene, medication. And stage three is rebuilding the other aspects of life, like relationships. Schrader admits he still fluctuates between stage two and three. He says how to get well and stay well is the million-dollar question.

“If we had the answer to that, that could be the magic dust that we sprinkle on people,” he said, joking. Ultimately, he says it takes drive, a willingness to do the right thing, being open-minded and able to honestly look at one’s life.

Recovery takes “being willing to do some extra work, being able to share your experience and your strength and your hope,” he said. “I think it’s imperative.”


Danyelle joined the Star in 2018 and covers K-12 education. Previously, Danyelle wrote for the Tucson Weekly where she won several statewide awards including story of the year and first place investigative reporting.