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On Our Minds is the name of KERA's mental health news initiative. The station began focusing on the issue in 2013, after the mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. Coverage is funded in part by the Donna Wilhelm Family Fund and Cigna.

Rep. Coleman Shares His Story Of Mental Illness, Encourages Others

Shelley Kofler

  The battle to help mentally ill people is personal for one state legislator.  Representative Garnet Coleman, a Houston Democrat, has bipolar disorder.

This week he participated in a mental health forum, Erasing the Stigma, which was sponsored by KERA, The Dallas Morning News, and Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings.

Then Rep. Coleman sat down to share his story.

Twenty-two years ago, when newly-elected Garnet Coleman first walked onto the floor of the Texas House, he was battling a debilitating illness he didn’t understand.

What he knew was that periodically a paralyzing wave of depression would hit like a sledgehammer, with paranoia and anxiety so overwhelming he’d crawl into bed and sleep for days.   

“Not eating.  Not doing anything.  This isn’t sleep,” said Coleman.  “This is mental escape. 

“It’s not being sad,” he explained.  “You look at yourself as worthless.”

The periods of deep depression started when Coleman was 16.  He’d eventually be diagnosed as having bipolar disorder, a condition of the brain that’s treatable.  It causes shifts in mood, energy and the ability to carry out daily activities. 

Coleman doesn’t recall high school as a time of close friendships and carefree fun.  What he remembers is wanting to hide where no one could find him.

“When I said I slept in a closet that was because sleeping in the bed wasn’t good enough, because someone might look in the window and see me.  So what I needed to do was go in the closet.” 

The periods of depression would lift and Coleman would try to lead a normal life.  But the darkness always returned:  through the 11 years it took him to complete college; as he courted his wife and married; after he was elected to the Texas legislature.

Then in 1994 Coleman’s father, a physician, died and Coleman really disappeared.

“I left and was missing for about 60 to 90 days,” he said remembering how he got in his car and drove to a hotel.

“I checked in, got in the room, pulled all the curtains and then slept for five days.  I wouldn’t let anybody into clean the room.  And I would certainly get paranoid.  Then I would leave when I thought somebody would find me.”

The episode was a turning point.

“I knew if I got depressed at the levels I was depressed I would kill myself.”

Coleman checked into a leading psychiatric hospital where doctors diagnosed his condition.  They provided the important combination of medicine and counseling that allows him to lead a productive life today.

While he doesn’t hide his condition from colleagues in the Texas House some are surprised when they learn he has bipolar disorder.

Representative James White from Woodville says what he knows about Coleman doesn’t seem consistent with a mentally ill person. 

“I do know him as being very passionate and focused on policy,” said White.

Others who do know, like Representative Helen Giddings of Dallas, say Coleman’s condition may be the reason he’s become the body’s recognized expert on public health and a tireless advocate for the mentally ill.

“He‘s spoken out and we listen to him,” said Giddings.  “He has done a ton of good in this state helping us set the right course in terms of mental illness.”

Coleman says the right course now, following the Newtown school shootings, is to educate the public and find help for those who are suffering.

While most mentally ill people are more of a danger to themselves than others, Coleman believes large scale tragedies can be prevented if there is early intervention.

“You have to intervene early for any illness and that includes mental illness,” said Coleman.  “So if it is that individual who might have a tendency to shoot others, is a danger to others, we need to catch them when it’s just developing.”

Rep. Coleman says he’ll never be cured, he still occasionally has episodes and he’ll have to take medicine for the rest of his life.  But he says the routine for maintaining his health now is similar to what people with chronic illnesses like diabetes or heart disease are going through. 

With proper treatment he says mental illness for him and many others can be managed.

Former KERA staffer Shelley Kofler was news director, managing editor and senior reporter. She is an award-winning reporter and television producer who previously served as the Austin bureau chief and legislative reporter for North Texas ABC affiliate WFAA-TV.