Mental Illness, specifically depression, runs through Dave Wingert’s family. But it wasn’t until he told his mother he wanted to go into radio broadcasting that he realized how deep that depression ran.
Wingert knew he wanted theater to be part of his college life at Ohio University. However, he wasn’t sure about his major until he walked past his college radio station while he was getting fitted for a costume to be worn for a role in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
“I looked at the studio, and pressed my nose against the glass, and I thought ‘Wow, playing music and talking. I can do that,’” Wingert says.
When Wingert told his mother, she said his father was also in broadcasting. Wingert was confused, because the man who raised him, Abe Wingert, was a dry cleaner who died of cancer when Dave was 14. Then, his mother said, “I’ve been meaning to tell you…”
He had a biological father he didn’t know about.
“And as my mother said that day ‘Well, your father came to the hospital the day you were born. Saw you, went home, and killed himself,” Wingert says.
Wingert’s biological father, Aaron Levine, went by the radio name David Stone. He was found dead inside his car in his garage. Wingert said he could have killed himself, or he could have just fallen asleep with the car running.
“It is all very clear to me now that if I inherited my father’s talent of theater [and radio], it’s not a far stretch that I inherited his depression as well,” Wingert says.
Wingert is an Omaha staple. His muted baritone was first heard on Omaha radio in the 1970s. He moved to Seattle in the 1990s, but returned to Omaha in 2000, and now DJs the morning program on Boomer Radio. He’s also been vocal about his struggles with depression. In addition to talking about it on air, he has given talks on depression in churches.
“I’m almost becoming the poster child of depression,” Wingert says.
According to statistics provided by the Douglas County Health Department, almost 21% of those surveyed in Douglas County in 2017 reported they had been told they’ve had depression of some form by a doctor, nurse, or other health professional. Almost 23% of those surveyed reported at least one day in the past month where their mental or physical health prevented them from working or pursuing daily activities.
Douglas County’s numbers are slightly higher than the national average. The National Institute on Mental Health reported that almost 19% of the United States population suffered from some form of mental illness in 2017. According to the National Health Expenditure Accounts, the United States spends more than $200 billion a year on mental health. Treatments are as varied as the illnesses themselves. Andrew Solomon’s National Book Award, and Pulitzer Prize-nominated book The Noonday Demon, dove into the “anything goes” approach to treating mental illness, from the conventional (cognitive-based therapy, medication) to the extreme (brain surgery, rituals involving animals).
For a field that seems to make enormous strides each year while remaining shoddy when it comes to producing effective treatments, it’s sometimes beneficial to study depression on a case-by-case basis. Each person who suffers from mental illness has a different family background that can confirm depression’s hereditary nature, and each person has certain barriers to care, be it their own (the stigma that comes with acknowledging you require therapy or medication) or financial ones. Two people, including Wingert, agreed to talk to Omaha Magazine about their lifelong struggles with mental illness. Another person found himself in an unexpected leadership position for mental illness after caring for a family member diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Wingert wasn’t expecting to go on an extended medical leave the morning of his last shift at Boomer Radio in June 2018. It was a routine that he had done thousands of times before: talk about the news, play some Fleetwood Mac, check in on traffic, and make some final preps for any guests that were supposed to come in for the day. But during the shift, “something snapped,” Wingert says.
He was dealing with typical real-life stressors. He had gotten married earlier that year and was working through the ups and downs that come with cohabitation. He was concerned with his place in the volatile broadcast radio industry. But on that June 2018 shift, things were different. He felt as though he was having a panic attack. He held it together on air, but he remembered telling the general manager “I feel like I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
Wingert said “goodbye” to his listeners at the end of that shift.
“I remember saying on the air ‘I’m sorry. I’ve got to take care of whatever this is that’s going on. So, I’m going to be gone for a little while.’”
For three weeks, Wingert practically sequestered himself in his house. He remembers napping a lot, as well as crying. Interacting with people was almost impossible. He remembers having trouble dealing with the checkout counter at Hy-Vee, and not being able to buy a newspaper at Walgreens.
Wingert knew he needed to see a psychiatrist. He allowed his psychiatrist to be in charge of all his medications. He had taken medication for years, first to deal with the pain from three hip surgeries when he lived in Seattle. Then for shoulder pain. He started with hydrocodone and later moved to oxycodone. Along with pain management, he began using the medication to deal with stress. His general practitioner caught on to his abuse.
“I remember my family physician saying ‘I’m not giving you any more hydrocodone, because when they find you dead, I don’t want my name on that bottle,’” Wingert says.
The treatment helped. Less than a month after he announced his sudden departure, Wingert was back on the air. His Facebook feed had dozens of well-wishes and ‘thank yous’ for his candidness. He remembers his first day back behind the microphone being tenuous.
“I thought ‘Can I still do this?’ ‘Did I lose my talent along the way?’ ‘Did God come down and take my talent?’” Wingert says.
By the end of the shift, he was back in the groove of things.
“It was fine,” Wingert says.
Wingert was prescribed Suboxone to ease his transition from oxycodone. He was also prescribed a new antidepressant, Pristiq. Between medication changes, things started to settle down for him.
“I lost 20 pounds like that,” Wingert says as he snapped his fingers.
Prescribed medication was only part of Wingert’s treatment. Most psychiatrists recommend some sort of cognitive therapy, like talking to a counselor or a peer group, alongside medication. Wingert’s psychiatrist recommended enrolling in a 12-step program.
When Wingert enrolled in the 12-step program, he decided to give up drinking. While he believed he didn’t have a drinking problem [he said his abuse was strictly related to opioids], he thought it best to make a clean break with everything. He has now passed one year of sobriety.
Michelle Troxclair is another staple of Omaha radio. She is the co-host of “The Morning Show: With Michael and Michelle” on Mind & Soul 101.3. Troxclair has openly discussed her struggles with depression on the radio with co-host Michael Scott. She routinely touts the importance of not lapsing with one’s anti-depression medication. Like Wingert, Troxclair traced her depression back to her youth.
“I was a very angry child, and had significant problems with anger management,” Troxclair says with a laugh. She was later diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Growing up in the 1970s, Troxclair says one of the reasons she wasn’t diagnosed early was because of her gender.
“They [clinicians] thought it was strictly a boy’s issue,” Troxclair says.
In terms of the ADHD, Troxclair compares it to having a web browser that’s bursting to capacity.
“People describe it as having a hundred tabs open in your brain, and you can’t shut any of them down, and they’re all open at the same time.”
It wasn’t until she became a parent that she actively sought professional help. She had been doing OK shielding her kids from general adult stresses like work issues. However, she was having increased trouble keeping a good front with her children.
“I was OK with showing anger in front of my children, but not the sadness piece,” Troxclair says.
Troxclair was diagnosed with major depressive disorder in the late 1990s. She was prescribed citalopram but quickly discontinued using it because of side effects. She now takes escitalopram, the generic form of Lexapro.
Medication helps with her depression and ADHD. Another thing that helps is constant activity. On top of being a radio show host and working at the Nebraska Writers Collective, she performs spoken word and runs her own nonprofit, Verse Inc. The organization helps pair poets with artists in other genres such as music or visual arts.
Troxclair says she routinely encounters people in the arts scene with depression, anxiety, and ADHD. Those working as full-time artists oftentimes find themselves lacking the resources to seek medication or psychiatric treatment, she says. A common problem is that some artists may not qualify for Medicaid but also not make enough money to qualify for the tax credits provided by the Affordable Care Act. The risk of going uninsured is especially troublesome for those suffering from mental illness because so much of the treatment, from routine psychiatric visits to medication, requires ongoing care.
Approximately 28.5 million people in the United States are uninsured, according to a 2017 report by the U.S. Census Bureau. Troxclair is one of them, and as a result, she searches for discounts for her medication, and pays $100 upfront to see a psychiatrist.
Troxclair says there are also cultural barriers in the African American community that prevent access to mental health resources.
A report circulated by the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services in July indicated that almost 15% of African Americans in the state had an anxiety disorder compared to 10% of whites. The same report stated that almost 28% of Native Americans in Nebraska suffered from an anxiety disorder.
“There is so much PTSD and trauma in the black community. It’s like a plague,” Troxclair says.
Troxclair points to the long-term psychological impacts of living in impoverished communities and institutional racism as two factors that contribute to PTSD in the African American community.
Troxclair has seen depression’s impact on young adults. As community outreach program coordinator for the Nebraska Writers Collective, Troxclair organizes poetry and creative writing programs for Blackburn Alternative High School as well as Douglas County Youth Correctional Center (DCYC). She has worked with kids at DCYC for more than two years.
“I have yet to meet a bad or evil kid since I’ve been there,” Troxclair says.
“Every kid I come across is a kid who is suffering some sort of trauma.”
To cope with traumas such as PTSD and extreme poverty, Troxclair says she sees many youths self-medicate and turn to other self-destructive behaviors. She points to a lack of education in schools when it comes to teaching kids about mental health.
“They’re just out [there] suffering without a clue until they end up in an emergency room, or picked up by police,” Troxclair says.
Law enforcement often times finds itself dealing with mental health episodes, sometimes with lethal results. On June 3, 2017, 29-year-old Zachary BearHeels was traveling on a bus from South Dakota to his home in Oklahoma City when it made a stop in Omaha. He was not allowed back on the bus because a passenger complained about his behavior, which reportedly included talking to himself. The next day Renita Chalepah, Zachary’s mother, alerted Omaha police that her son was schizophrenic and suffered from bipolar disorder.
The American Psychiatric Association showed in 2014 that, nationally, approximately 21% of Native Americans/Alaska Natives ages 18 and up had reported mental illness, compared with 17.9% for the general population.
On June 5, 2017, police responded to a disturbance call at Bucky’s gas station at 6003 Center St. There, the police confronted BearHeels. During the encounter, BearHeels died after being shocked by a Taser 12 times and punched in the head repeatedly. Two of the officers involved were fired for their involvement. One officer was acquitted of second-degree assault; no other officers were charged.
Since BearHeels’ death, the Omaha Police Department increased efforts to train their staff about mental illness. One such course is Crisis Intervention Team (CIT). The class teaches law enforcement about de-escalating mental health-related incidents, identifying medications and their side effects, suicide prevention, and geriatric-related mental health issues as well as handling juveniles in crisis situations. Oftentimes when police are called to respond to a mental health-related disturbance, a person is going to one of two places, and each has a significantly different outcome, Gary Hering says.
“You’re going to the hospital, or you’re going to jail,” Hering says.
Hering works at Mutual of Omaha as a systems engineer. Before joining Mutual, Hering’s background was almost purely mechanical. His father was a mechanic, and when he was in the military, he serviced aircraft. However, his home life was slowly preparing him for his current role as president of the Omaha affiliate chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). He was caring for a family member who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
Late one night, the person Hering was caring for locked themselves in the bathroom and dialed 911, telling them that they were in danger from Hering. The police were dispatched, but the family member left the house before police arrived.
“Somebody must have told [the relative] in their manic state ‘If you see an opportunity to get out of the house, go ahead and leave,’” Hering says.
Hering soon found himself in a standoff with police. They asked him if he had any weapons in the house. He said he did: a 1917 Russian rifle he inherited from his father. After determining the swatting incident was a medical-related matter, things calmed down, but Hering found himself reaching out to NAMI.
He attended one class called Family to Family, which is free and open to the public. He was so impressed at the curriculum that he volunteered to be on the NAMI board. He was later elected president and has held that title for three years.
The knowledge and peer support of NAMI helped Hering when another family member was diagnosed with mental illness. A family member was hospitalized twice this summer for bipolar disorder. Both times, he was able to receive help promptly, but at a steep cost thanks to an emergency department visit.
“The initial bill was $9,000 before a psych consultant,” Hering says.
Two major Omaha hospitals—Nebraska Medicine and CHI Health—require patients to be evaluated through the emergency department before they are admitted to inpatient psychiatric care.
“I can’t speak for the city as a whole, but I don’t see availability of services as an issue,” Hering says. “I think it’s the cost. The cost that these people are going to incur to get services is unsustainable because they’ll stop going to get services if they can’t afford it.”
There is low-cost help available. One resource is Behavioral Health Connection at Nebraska Medicine. Anyone with a concern for themselves or a loved one can call 402.836.9292 daytime, and experts at BHC will help people meet behavioral health and other social service needs. This includes helping to identify problems, or helping to get into and find transportation to programs and agencies. Troxclair recommends Charles Drew Health Center’s Behavioral Health Services at 402.810.9758. Another resource is NAMI Omaha. Their free services include 24-hour information and referral line (402.717.4673), a suicide hotline (800.273.8255), a Nebraska family helpline (888.866.8660) and a safe harbor line (402.715.4226) for those with mental illness to call for help anytime.
Hering said he has seen a noticeable shift about people’s attitudes toward mental health, specifically depression, especially with younger people. Peer support is an essential element when it comes to treating mental illness. People who are realizing that they require mental health assistance can find the options (or lack thereof) to be an anxiety-inducing challenge.
Hering recommends looking for counselors before seeking a psychiatrist. Many company insurances have confidential Employee Assistance Programs where counseling services may be free for some initial visits. Hering also cautions people who are first reaching out for help to manage their expectations.
“This is a marathon, not a sprint,” Hering says.
This article was printed in the November/December 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.