Volunteer wins award for work with mental illness

Cambridge resident Louise Newsom shares personal journey

By Elizabeth Sias

When Louise Newsom opened a letter in the mail informing her she had won a Program Volunteer of the Year Award, she was in disbelief.

The letter was from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota, and it was recognizing Newsom for her years facilitating a weekly support group in Cambridge for people diagnosed with mental illness.

Louise Newsom with her Program Volunteer of the Year Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) of Minnesota. Photo by Elizabeth Sias

Newsom, 55, has suffered from severe recurrent chronic depression most of her life. In March 2006, her diagnosis was changed to bipolar II disorder, which means she experiences major depressive episodes, but fewer, less severe manic episodes.

“Most of my time is spent in depression,” Newsom said. “The first thing I notice is the extreme fatigue, and then I tend to isolate and withdraw.”

With NAMI, she is also an In Our Own Voice speaker, which means she travels to share her story of recovery and share information on mental illness.

The support group she has facilitated since 2009 meets Thursday evenings at 6:30 at Cambridge Medical Center, and she recently started a family support group for friends and family of those with a diagnosis to meet at the same time.

During its annual conference held in Minneapolis on Nov. 5, NAMI presented Newsom with a Program Volunteer of the Year Award, which recognizes an individual who has given generously of their time and expertise and has shown exceptional leadership in one of NAMI’s programs.

Newsom remembers her first encounter with depression when she was 15 years old. She was in the kitchen helping her mom with dinner when she told her she needed to see someone to get help, and her mom made a flippant comment.

“I remember thinking, ‘boy, if my kid felt this way, I think I would get her some help,’” she said. “But I was one of eight kids, and you didn’t just willy-nilly go to the doctor. I think my folks would recognize a physical ailment much more quickly than a mental ailment.”

As an adult, she worked as a nurse in Cambridge and taught at Anoka-Ramsey Community College in the RN program. When her coworkers began noticing her lack of productivity and motivation, they encouraged her to seek help.

Finally, in October 1993, Newsom was diagnosed with depression.

“It was kind of a relief, in that finally I knew what I was dealing with,” she said.

On average, it takes 10 years before people get diagnosis and treatment for mental illnesses. Part of the reason, Newsom said, is fear of attaching a label to the illness too soon. For a long time, her psychiatrist thought her depression was situational, but when it repeated frequently, it became clear the depression was chronic.

When her diagnosis was changed to bipolar II disorder, Newsom said she was initially shocked.

“It was like a slap in the face,” she said. “It was like, ‘this is a chronic illness and you better get off your posterior anatomy and deal with it.’”

She hasn’t been working because of the instability of the illness—between 2004 and 2010, she had 16 different hospital stays, or about every three months.

When she has severe depressive episodes, Newsom said she often feels intrusive suicidal thoughts, which led to many of those hospital stays.

It has been over a year since her last hospital stay, however. Newsom would like to work again eventually, but she said it probably wouldn’t be as a nurse because of the stress level associated with the position.

At her home in Cambridge, she keeps her calendar full and her mind busy, which includes frequently visiting with her two sons, who are 21 and 28.

With the help of NAMI, Newsom feels more comfortable and confident when talking about her mental illness.

“It’s much easier to talk about it now,” she said. “I think what it was was admitting that bipolar truly is a chronic disease and not something that I got caught at. I think it’s unfortunate that I didn’t use it as the teaching tool that it could have been earlier in my life because I think I could have shared it with some of my students and been an example.”

Newsom is still very careful with self-care, continuing to take her medication, making sure she gets proper nutrition and exercise, and getting enough sleep every night.

“One of the myths out there is that we’re all cuckoo, or non-functional, and it’s not true,” she said. “There are many people managing their mental illnesses and remaining as functional members of society.”

Newsom advises anyone who may have an undiagnosed mental illness to seek help.

“It’s a very rough time when you’re not diagnosed,” she said. “Life can be better than that.”