“When I went to college, I came out with a degree in electrical engineering, but my specialty was in biomedical engineering. I worked for medical equipment manufacturers in clinics and hospitals. Manufacturing, quality control, maintenance for various kinds of medical equipment.” Lon Voils nods to himself as he finishes his thought. “That’s the technology aspect of caring for humans.”
A Rhinelander resident since the 1990s, Voils willingly discusses his nomadic childhood spent moving all around the Midwest; his two college degrees; his long list of jobs in both medical and technological fields; and his struggles with mental illness. For the last several years he has been using his experiences to help others better understand and live with their own mental illnesses. A certified peer specialist, Voils has been closely involved with the local branch of NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Voils is a soft-spoken man, and he thoughtfully chooses his words before speaking. “As an engineer, I like to ask, ‘How does something work?’ and then, ‘Why does something work?’” His interest in the medical field dates back to his childhood. Research into mental illness in just the past few decades has significantly altered the ways mental illnesses are approached, discussed and treated. The relationship between mind and body has come into focus, just as Voils’ focus has broadened from the technological and physical aspects of human health care to include the mental.
“As an adult, I was diagnosed with depression, although I can see now that I began experiencing symptoms of depression even back in high school.” Voils would later mention his diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome as an adult, and he attributes his love for tinkering and engineering to this disorder’s characteristic symptoms. “Eventually, [depression] began to interfere with my normal activities. After my hospitalization, my new research project became mental health.”
Voils dug into the aspects of mental health the same way he had dug into physical health in college. “I researched things and became associated with groups. I saw what was and wasn’t. And I’ve tried to do something about it, at least locally.”
Three years ago, NAMI Northern Lakes was founded to serve the counties of Oneida, Forest and Vilas, and Voils found a place in the organization right away. NAMI was founded in Madison in 1979 by two mothers whose sons had mental illnesses. The organization soon spread and found sources of funding, and now NAMI has operations in every state. NAMI is largely focused on peer-to-peer support for those with mental illness as well as their families. Voils says it can be thought of as opposed to traditional therapy. “We’re not speaking from a book or dictating from a lecture. We are sharing from personal experience.”
NAMI Northern Lakes currently meets at Rhinelander’s First United Methodist Church on Saturdays for their peer support sessions, but they are in the process of finding more permanent space to build a drop-in center. Drop-in centers are part of a growing movement of peer therapy. They provide everything from a space to socialize with people with whom one is comfortable to other services like immediate peer therapy, help finding residence and jobs, and mental health education.
Space for the proposed drop-in center is being negotiated with the Bethesda Lutheran Church, which recently purchased the former South Park School in Rhinelander. The building will be used to consolidate Bethesda’s two area locations, and they anticipate having some unused space available.
Voils is enthusiastic about the prospect of a more permanent location for NAMI Northern Lakes’ librarian, with a sizeable collection of literature related to mental health. The library is currently packed into four small storage boxes that are kept in a closet in First United’s basement. The rest is kept at Voils’ home.
A permanent location for NAMI would afford space for a bookshelf, for which Voils would be grateful, but it would also provide a welcoming place in the community for people with mental illnesses at any time. “Having a mental illness can be very isolating,” says Voils. “When you get down to it, loneliness kills.” The drop-in center would be staffed by certified peer specialists like Voils.
The process for peer support certification is not a simple one. There are four accepted curricula in the state, lasting between 40 and 70 hours each, one of which must be completed prior to taking the certification test. There are now more than 300 certified peer specialists in Wisconsin, including three from Oneida County.
Mental illness has become a more public issue in recent years, and that is good, says Voils. “A recent study showed that while educating people about mental illness can be effective in combating harmful stereotypes about people with mental illnesses, a more valuable addition comes from actually knowing someone. Maybe they live down the street, or work with you, or your kids play soccer together, but people see that ‘this person is not too different from me.’”
Voils recounts a time when a visitor to a NAMI meeting asked him for a photo of someone with a mental illness. “The mentally ill, axe-wielding madman stereotype is still prevalent in people’s minds,” he says. Because of the stigma that is still attached to the mental illness, people who suffer from depression, bipolar disorder and other illnesses are often unlikely to mention it. As many as four in 10 adults in the United States suffer from a mental illness, but largely remain silent and keep their illness under wraps. Voils quotes French author Albert Camus: “Some people expend tremendous energy just to appear normal.”
A paradox arises from the fact that while knowing someone with a mental illness is the most effective means of eliminating its stigma, as long as the stigma exists, many sufferers will be reluctant to be open about their own struggles. That’s why Voils says that any time a high-profile figure reveals his or her mental illness, it not only is freeing for that individual, but also for many private citizens who hide their illness.
Voils is very open about the history of his depression, his hospitalization and the ways it has impacted his life. “I have two degrees. I have hobbies. I got married. I’ve had careers in fields I enjoy. Basically, I have never been unable to do anything I wanted to do just because of my mental illness.”
The floodgates have been opened on mental illness research and understanding, and NAMI has given Voils an opportunity to use his experience to help out locals who are going through similar struggles. In a cultural atmosphere that tends to be polluted by fear of the unknown and willful ignorance regarding mental illness, Voils’ openness and honesty is a breath of fresh air.
“Some people try to hide from it out of fear of the stigma,” he says. “And some of us just don’t care anymore.”
NAMI peer support meetings are open to all, and participation is not required. Local officials can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at (715) 362-0423.
Matt Persike is a freelance writer who lives in Rhinelander. His articles also appear in Northwoods Commerce and Living on the Lake magazines.