Hempfield man: ‘Don’t give up,’ seek help for mental health issues

Brandon Thomas of Hempfield, who has dealt with bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders and depression for two decades, said it is important for those facing mental health issues not to give up and not to think they are a bad person for what they might have done.

“Bad decisions don’t make you a bad person,” said the 50-year-old Thomas, who overcame his struggles to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the past two years and landed a job as a training coordinator for the University of Pittsburgh’s School of Pharmacy.

Thomas said he has been dealing with depression and bipolar disorder since his late 20s and post-traumatic stress disorder since his late 30s.

“The main thing is to never give up. I don’t want anyone to give up. No one is a failure,” Thomas said.

To raise awareness of mental health issues, a mental health and wellness program will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at the Greensburg YWCA, 424 N. Main Street, Greensburg.

Among the 15 organizations participating in the Unity in the Community-sponsored event are the Blackburn Center, Clarion, Medmark, Sage’s Army of Hempfield and Westmoreland Community Action, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Westmoreland County Behavioral Health, Clear Day and Dream’s Life, said Ronel Baccus, organizer and founder of Unity in the Community. Information on mental health resources will be available.

Research shows mental illnesses affect almost one in every five adults in the nation — 53 million in 2020, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, a federal agency with the Department of Health and Human Services. While millions suffer from the different types of mental illnesses with varying degrees of severity, only about half of those people receive any treatment, according to the institute.

Thomas started on a typical post-high school path, attending Slippery Rock University in Butler County, where he was studying to be a nurse. He also was playing volleyball until an injury derailed his time on the court.

He moved to Wisconsin for 15 years, working in mental health, volunteering as a firefighter there and later in Pennsylvania. His mental health struggles led him to an attempted suicide, in which he said he “coded” — his heart stopped twice — in an ambulance en route to a hospital.

He returned to family in Western Pennsylvania and had inpatient mental health treatment and therapy.

And his struggles did not affect only him.

“It’s just not you … It’s the whole family,” said Thomas, the father of two daughters, 23 and 19, who live in Arizona.

He became a nontraditional student at the Bidwell Training Center in Pittsburgh, where he earned a medical assistant’s license. He served as a patient care technician in the psychiatric emergency department at UPMC Mercy hospital in Pittsburgh, which involved dealing with patients in a mental health crisis.

Seeking further education so he could help others, Thomas earned his bachelor’s degree in social work in 2020 from the University of Pittsburgh. He was on a five-year program to earn his master’s degree in social work so he could become a therapist when he hit a snag in the midst of covid. He ran out of money to pay rent and bills.

Thomas almost resorted to living in his car but was saved by scholarship funding generated by the Pitt Day of Giving. Encouraged by faculty to continue his education, he received financial assistance and was able to earn his master’s degree this past December.

“If it wasn’t for the support I received at Pitt, I would not have finished my (master’s) degree,” Thomas said. “A person has to ask for help and has to accept it,” noting the latter sometimes is most difficult.

He is using his life’s experiences in his job, counseling emergency medical personnel about opioid abuse across a territory that spans the state and covers parts of Ohio and Virginia. While he has turned around his life and is working full time, he is emphatic that “the journey is not over.” He continues to go for therapy to help him process what he has been through.

“I’m not unique in my story as far as mental health goes. If I can get this message out that it is OK to get help and accept help … things can get better.”

Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .