June 18, 2019

Overcoming stigma, shame, and silence

One man’s journey through mental illness and healing in the wake of suicide, depression, and hopelessness.

The healing power of family: Adam and his sons on a ski weekend.

Adam Nemer discovered the unthinkable 20 years ago when he found his father — his best friend — dead by suicide. Mort Nemer didn’t show up for work one morning and Adam had the key to his home.

While no words can describe the traumatic shock of finding and losing his father, “the insidiousness of the stigma, myths, and shame of mental illness” drove Adam to seek only a handful of therapy sessions. He also wouldn’t even consider discussing antidepressants.

“Our culture and society had taught us that only weak people need mental health support,” Adam says. “So, for therapy, I just wanted to get in, get out, and get on with my life — and not someday do the same thing as my father.”

A seemingly charmed life

By all outward appearances, Adam lived a charmed life.

He went to graduate school, married, had children, and climbed the executive ladder. In reality, the executive director for Health Plan Services and Administration for Kaiser Permanente in the Northwest felt deeply depressed, alone, and hopeless, and was doing anything possible “just to keep the plates spinning.”

“I was suffocating each day from depression, anxiety, and panic attacks,” Adam says. “But the stigma and shame of mental illness prevented me from telling anyone or seeking professional help.”

Then, 2 years ago, the unthinkable happened again. Adam found his mother dead after she hadn’t answered her phone over the weekend. Several months later, he woke up and couldn’t move. “It was all I could do to get a sock on. The pain was excruciating.”

Finally, Adam called Kaiser Permanente’s employee assistance program and began his therapeutic journey — a journey that’s taken him more than 2 years and has included cognitive behavioral therapy, specialized trauma therapy, antidepressants, hot-yoga, and “doing a lot more big mountain skiing with my kids.”

Adam Nemer’s parents, Mort and Patti Nemer.
Adam’s parents, Mort and Patti Nemer, visiting him in college.

A newfound sense of purpose

“My dad’s suicide is a shadow that will never go away,” says Adam. “But I don’t always have to see it or look for it. I fight anxiety, panic, and depression daily as a chronic illness. I accept that I’m on a journey with no destination, and I’m developing the tools to guide me through it.”

He’s also uncovered a newfound sense for what he describes as his own self-actualization, or purpose and potential for life: Sharing what he’s learned with others.

In partnership with Kaiser Permanente Northwest's Addiction Medicine and Mental Health Services team, Adam developed a 45-minute public service announcement that shines a light on the stigma, myths, and shame of mental illness. He’s also developing talks on management and leadership tools that will speak to anxiety and depression at work.

He shares these messages with groups inside and outside of Kaiser Permanente with the goal of making mental health training as common as CPR first aid training.

“The facts are that 1 in 5 adults experience a mental health condition in a given year and 1 in 25 experience a serious mental illness, but less than half of them get the help they need,” says Adam. “What if the words ‘mental illness’ were replaced with ‘cancer’ in those statistics? How might society respond?

“People shouldn’t have to go through the pain and loneliness that I did for 18 years.  There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, and we have a moral obligation to help people see it and reach it.” 

Need help now?

If you are in crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

If you think you're having a psychiatric emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.