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U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Department of Health and Human Services
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration

Last Updated: 7/7/2008

SAMHSA’s Resource Center to Promote Acceptance,
Dignity and Social Inclusion Associated with
Mental Health (ADS Center)


Sr. Ann Catherine Veirstahler's Story

The story of my lifelong struggle with mental illness has been featured in both newspapers and magazines. Although my professional life has included working as a Registered Nurse with the Red Cross in a refugee camp in Cambodia, serving as a nursing home administrator, starting the first clinics for homeless people in Milwaukee, and creating programs to meet the needs of persons with mental illnesses in boarding homes, my own rapid cycling bipolar disorder, present since age seven, was not correctly diagnosed and treated for decades.

I recently retired from my job as an advocacy specialist and volunteer coordinator at the Greater Milwaukee chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), and now work as a private duty nurse. I also devote my time and skills to a Web site,, and a book, called Sharing the Hope, Sharing the Healing, which collect stories about how people have addressed their mental health needs successfully. The Web site shares stories of individuals' successes despite the many challenges of mental illness in order to offer hope to persons who are still struggling and to help overcome the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illnesses by educating the public. My own story can be found on this Web site. As a member of Al-Anon for many years, I use the 12-step program in my own life and know firsthand the challenges of addictive behaviors.

I have received many awards for my programs and innovations in empowering people to meet their needs and lead enriching and meaningful lives. My awards include the Consumer Advocacy Award of the Mental Health Association in Milwaukee County and several awards from NAMI, including the Adult Services Award.

I have spent more than 40 years in public health service and have received many awards for my programs and innovations in empowering people to lead enriching and meaningful lives. Throughout my career, I have always tried to give others some comfort.

Ironically, through all the decades that I struggled with my own mental illness, I couldn't do that for myself.

I first thought of killing myself when I was 16. For more than 20 years, I fought the urge—often dozens of times a day—to overdose on pills, slit my wrists, or hang myself. I was too ashamed to talk about my illness, so I never told anyone how much I wanted to die, or how I would cry so hard that I would vomit. I even fooled my doctors.

The oldest of eight kids, I grew up in a poor family. My dad was a laborer, who often worked two jobs to support us. My mom had a brain injury, which resulted in frequent outbursts; and one of my sisters had severe developmental disabilities. While my childhood was hard, I found some comfort in the nuns of the Sisters of Charity at St. Joan Antida, where I would scrub floors and clean toilets to earn my tuition. At 19, I decided to join them.

In 1969, I got my degree in nursing, and for the next several years I worked at various nursing homes and hospitals. I helped organize a clinic for homeless men, and in 1980 traveled with the Red Cross in Cambodia to teach wound care and instruct mothers in proper nutrition. Everyone thought I was accomplishing so much, but it was my illness that was forcing me to work almost around the clock—and it was taking its toll. I battled with my co-workers, and left jobs abruptly. I confided in a doctor and he prescribed Mellaril, which helped with the suicidal urges but not with the mood swings. I knew I should take my medication religiously but didn't, and I kept growing sicker and sicker.

In 1994, I survived stomach cancer, which seemed a lot less painful than mental illness! Finally, several years ago, I discovered the ecumenical Spirit, Mind and Body Group, which met weekly to help caregivers learn to cope with stress. As a result of the strength, peace, and energy I got from the group, I decided to work more closely with my doctor to get my illness under control. I started taking Tegretol to combat my mood swings, and I now control my mental illness with medication, meditation, prayer, a good diet and exercise. My only regret is that this has happened now and not 50 years ago. But the point is, I'm feeling so much better. If I can, others can, too.

Sr. Ann Catherine Veirstahler

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This Web site was developed under contract with the Office of Consumer Affairs in SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. The views, opinions, and content provided on this Web site do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or policies of SAMHSA or HHS. The resources listed in this Web site are not all-inclusive and inclusion on this Web site does not constitute an endorsement by SAMHSA or HHS.