Life is hard enough for most people, but Jon Grate of Davenport has a few more challenges than most.
The Chicago native has been treated for paranoid schizophrenia, depression, panic and anxiety attacks, mania, and post-traumatic stress disorder. He has heard voices in his head since he was 4.
Mr. Grate, 61, has been confined to a psychiatric ward six times, been homeless four times, and lost almost everything he owned three times. He has been an alcoholic and attempted suicide more than once.
Yet, Mr. Grate is happy. He's safe and in recovery. Since he can't hold a full-time job, and is not allowed to drive, he volunteers for a cause he's passionate about - mental health.
Mr. Grate, who lives off about $625 a month in Social Security benefits, said he's always believed in giving back to society.
He's been involved with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Iowa for 10 years. He works with a state commission to improve the care system for the mentally ill, mentally retarded, developmentally disabled, and brain injured in Iowa.
Mr. Grate is a NAMI mentor helping people deal with their illness and is on a state task force to reduce use of seclusion and restraint in state mental health institutions.
People have pre-conceived notions about mental illness, said Greg Paulline, director of Frontier Community Support at the Vera French Community Mental Health Center.
'People like Jon go out and help dispel that myth. You listen to Jon talk and he dispels a lot of the stigma. He's brilliant - one of the smartest people I know.'
Mr. Grate graduated from Western Illinois University and received a master's degree in library and information science in Louisiana and did doctoral work at the University of Northern Colorado. He has taught English at the middle school and community college levels.
By 1981, Mr. Grate had lived on the street six months. 'The radio talked to me, I heard voices. License plates held secret messages and life was frightening,' he said.
He was very shaken by the 1981 death of a grandmother he didn't believe could die, and whom he cared for the last three months of her life. He kept seeing her and hearing her after that.
Mr. Grate's first hospital commitment was that year. 'I was too weird for people to want me around; I scared them,' he wrote. 'Not that I was dangerous, but only that I was strange.'
Mr. Grate has never been violent, and said just 3 percent of the mentally ill are violent. Yet, most TV shows and movies depict the mentally ill as violent, he said.
His odyssey across the country led him to Moline in 1992, to stay with his parents. Mr. Grate joined Alcoholics Anonymous and began regular psychotherapy.
'I have volunteered much, mainly to help my self-esteem and try to be more involved in society,' said Mr. Grate, who lives with a 15-year-old cat named Baby. 'Intellectual and creative self-worth, I'm real good at.'
While he's 'terrified' of crowds, Mr. Grate functions normally in certain settings - such as a recent community mental health forum.
'If you put me in a social situation where there's a role, I know what my role is, then I'm playing a part,' he said. 'If you put me in a situation that's a general party, I turn into a gibbering idiot.'
Mr. Grate sees a clinical psychologist at Vera French and takes seven medications that cost $1,400 a month (paid by Medicaid). They have some nasty side effects, he said, but it's that or insanity. 'It's hard work getting sane.''
If you go
The annual NAMI Walk for the Mind of America will be Saturday, May 3, at Credit Island Park in Davenport. Check-in is 8:30 a.m., and the 3.1-mile walk starts at 10 a.m. There is no walker registration fee. In 2007, NAMI walk events raised $6.5 million, used to improve the lives of those experiencing serious mental illness.
For more information on the NAMI Walk, visit www.nami.org/namiwalks, or call Greg or Teri at (563) 388-9068 or Carl or Kathy at (563) 332-9749.
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