“I hate being treated like an emergency waiting to happen.” UK student Bailey Patterson speaks on her experience with suicide and wanting to help others

The following article discusses suicide, suicidal ideation, miscarriage, and sexual abuse, which some readers may find distressing. 

Bailey Patterson was 4 or 5 when she began struggling with suicidal thoughts. 

“Things like ‘I wish I’d never been born,’ ‘I don’t want to be here,’ ‘I wish I would die,’” Patterson, a senior Interdisciplinary Disability Studies major at UK who identifies as multiply disabled, said. “Those thoughts progressed as life threw me more curveballs, where I was pretty actively having suicidal thoughts probably every day of my life when I was in middle school and high school. Still, I would never have a plan, it was just pretty aggressive thoughts.” 

That lasted until she was 16, when a friend had experienced a traumatic event for which Patterson felt responsible. Her mother interrupted her first suicide attempt shortly after that.

Patterson is not alone in struggling with suicidal thoughts. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suicide is the 11th leading cause of death in the US. The World Health Organization reports that it is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29-year-olds. The CDC reports that 12.3 million American adults have serious suicidal thoughts and 1.7 million attempt suicide. In 2022, 49,449 people died by suicide. 

Patterson considers herself chronically suicidal, but stresses that suicide is a complex issue. Mental illness is often a component of it – according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, 46 percent of people who die by suicide have a known mental health condition – but Patterson stresses that there are other extenuating circumstances. She remembers her first stay as an inpatient in a mental health facility. The only other patients in her ward were girls, ages 12 to 17.

“There was a really common thread about gender-based violence,” she said. “Several of the girls on the ward had been sexually abused by older men.” 

Patterson noted that she thinks this ties into a major factor in suicide that is commonly overlooked.

“There’s this narrative in popular culture that if someone is suicidal, it’s because they don’t see the value in their lives or they’re depressed, and you can do this that and the other to make it go away. You can take long walks and you can eat healthier and you’ll feel less depressed,” she said. “For many people, the cause of the suicidal thoughts or the depression is the situation they’re living in. There are people living in current abusive situations that they feel they have no way of escaping from, there are people who are dealing with interpersonal violence or abuse, there are people who are homeless, there are people who are in poverty, there are people who are experiencing systemic interpersonal racism and sexism and bigotry. Those things are not things that you can walk and eat better to get rid of.”

That means that addressing those issues will help also help address the risk of suicide among marginalized populations. Patterson believes that addressing those issues while promoting mental health will do a lot to solve the problem.  

“I feel like if we understood that and worked towards those goals while also keeping in mind personal wellness and self-care and things like that, that would be a big help,” she said. “A lot of people are overlooking some of the greatest causes of distress that are leading people to be suicidal.”

She also remembers difficult times and experiences for both her and the others she met during her two inpatient stays. Among them, she particularly recalls a patient with a fear of needles being given medication by injection against her wishes when that patient felt there were other ways to administer similar medication and another woman on her second trip to inpatient services who had been pregnant when she was checked in and miscarried after being given a medication early in her stay.

That experience awakened in Patterson a desire to help others with the same struggles. Now, she channels that into standing against abuse and the loss of autonomy in psychiatric settings. Currently, Bailey is a Student Informatician with SPHERE at HDI, Officer of the Disabled and Ill Student Coalition, and an activism and research advocate in the Mad Pride and Psychiatric Survivors movements.

“The feeling of solidarity with these other with these other people who were also experiencing something similar to what I was in the moment, being there, hearing their stories changed my life,” she said. “That was the first moment where I thought ‘this is important and I want to do something about this for the rest of my life.’”

Helping others is one of the ways in which she deals with the frequent thoughts of suicide that she still experiences – and feels like she will always experience. 

“I manage, like a lot of us do,” she said. “Take it one day at a time and try to take care of myself as best I can, but I do not foresee a life for myself where I do not feel suicidal in some degree most days of my life. That’s probably just the way it is for me. That’s something that I’m going to have to continue to manage for the rest of my life, and I think that’s ok.”

She’s found a few coping mechanisms that can help when the thoughts get particularly bad. 

“One of the things that I do is I try to imagine a time in the future where I am happy,” she said. “That can be really hard, especially when you’re very depressed, but I have a couple of things in my mind, scenarios where I could be doing this thing that would be a happy moment for me. I try to really picture it and stay in that moment…then I try with all my might to believe that could happen for me one day. That’s my best coping mechanism thus far.” 

And if someone close to you is struggling with suicidal thoughts, Patterson stressed that one of the best ways to help is to keep treating them like a human being. 

“Anyone who hears that their loved one is going to have emotions that come up for them, but I think the number one thing you can do is not freak out,” she said. “You should be there, and you should attend to the problems…I sometimes get the feeling that we are treated like a danger. I hate being treated like an emergency waiting to happen. I think the best thing you can do is just be calm and present for that person and realize that the person speaking to you is the person you’ve known.”

Warning signs of suicide may include: 

  • No longer participating in things they enjoy
  • Feeling sad all or most of the time
  • Talking about dying or wishing not to be alive
  • Feeling hopeless or feeling like one has no purpose
  • Withdrawing from social groups or saying goodbye
  • Giving away important items

If you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, help is available. You can call the suicide and crisis lifeline at 988 or text SAVE to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both services are free and available 24/7. If someone is in immediate danger call 911 or go to your local Emergency Room.

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Austin wearing a green, linen shirt smiling in front of trees. She has long, brown wavy hair

Nugent appointed to National Disability Rights Network Board of Directors

Austin Nugent has built bridges between many different parts of the disability community, and she’s about to put those connections to use. 

Nugent, who is a Disability Program Administrator at HDI, has been named an At-Large member for the National Disability Rights Network’s (NDRN) Board of Directors. That means that she’ll help provide oversight to an organization that protects and advocates for people with all sorts of disabilities nationwide, focusing on ensuring that people’s rights are protected.

“I will be not only helping to provide oversight to NDRN to make sure that their mission is in line with their services, but it’s also to make sure that the NDRN is aware of the issues happening in our communities,” she said.

And that is a position that Nugent is well-suited for. She has friends and family in multiple corners of the country and is connected to numerous diverse disability communities. Nugent brings a number of different skill sets to her role, including expertise in disability policy – a field in which she’s currently working on her master’s. She’s excited for the opportunity to be involved in helping build supports for her family, which is not based in Kentucky.

“My north stars are my brothers, and sometimes it feels like I’m so far removed from the systems that are supporting them,” she said. “The fact that I get to be involved with NDRN feels like I get to be a part in shaping the systems that are ultimately impacting their lives in Arizona.”

For now, she’s serving as an alternate, meaning that she votes on issues when other At-Large board members aren’t available. However, in October, the terms for the other At-Large board members end and she becomes a full board member.

“Like HDI, NDRN is a cross-disability organization focused on a variety of issues – education, healthcare, supported decision-making, etc. They support people with all types of disabilities, including Down syndrome, mental health disorders, and various health conditions, she said. “All things that are part of my life or the life of someone I know. So the fact that I get to bring together all my experiences, and wear all my different hats at a national level is so exciting!”

Current board member, and Executive Director of Kentucky Protection & Advocacy (P&A), Jeffrey Edwards, who nominated Nugent, said that he worked with her as part of the mental health advisory council for P&A. Frequently, Edwards looks at those boards for NDRN candidates.

“All of us can be self-advocates, but there are those of us who are born with it inside,” Edwards said. “It’s just that fire in your belly to make the world a better place, and I think that’s what Austin brings to it…That’s who she is.”

And for Edwards, those traits exemplify what Nugent is capable of – and the kind of attitude she’ll bring to the board.

“Those are people who bring something to the table,” he said. “They’re a known advocate, they’re passionate, they’re willing to go the extra mile, they share their experience and disclose the things that impact them. Austin does all those things in spades.”

“Mental health isn’t a one-size fits all.” Austin Nugent speaks on her experience with OCD and how it may look different from what you think.

What do you think of when you think about OCD, or obsessive-compulsive disorder?   

Is it someone who has to obsessively organize their whole book collection by author? Or someone washing their hands, over and over and over for fear of catching an unknown disease? 

According to Austin Nugent, a Disability Program Administrator at HDI, even if you’re not completely wrong, you only have a small piece of the puzzle.  

“I think the most common misunderstanding is that mental health is one-size fits all, so if you have obsessive compulsive disorder, it’s going to look a certain way, like you see in the movies,” she said.  

For Austin, OCD doesn’t look like washing hands over and over again, or counting the number of times she closes the door or quadruple checking that the stove is off. It is intrusive thoughts caused by a sensation, image, or idea. These triggers are often perceived as insignificant by others, but for Nugent, her OCD attaches meaning to her intrusive thoughts leading to a great deal of distress. She gets stuck on things needing to be ‘just right’ like a conversation, the organization of a closet, the texture of food, or the formatting of a document.  

If things don’t meet the expectations of her OCD, she will seek reassurance, avoid particular situations, or perform mental rituals like ruminating for hours or days, or over explaining and correcting to alleviate her anxiety or discomfort. To most people, it may not even be noticeable that she is caught in an ‘OCD cycle.’ But for Nugent, it’s very real.  

“People often think I appear to be fine, so therefore I must be fine,” she said. “No. My brain is on a constant loop. My heart is racing, and I am super clammy and sweaty because I am on the verge of a full-fledged panic attack about something that happened two hours ago that most people would probably find very insignificant, like a typo in an email or a twitch in my eye.”  

A fear of what has happened is just one of the ways her anxiety manifests. It can also present as a fear of what-ifs.

“I also get uneasy about things that don’t happen, like someone saying something one way instead of another, convinced that I must be a ‘bad person,’” she said. “I know the twitch in my eye is probably because I’m tired, and someone not responding in a certain way is not indicative of my worth, but OCD will do all that it can to convince me otherwise.” 

But it’s not all a challenge, she noted.  

“Although OCD can cause me a lot of anxiety and be very time-consuming, I have learned to be proud of my journey, as I also find benefits and strengths in having OCD,” she said. “For example, it makes me incredibly detailed-orientated and very organized.” 

For Nugent, Mental Health Awareness Month is a reminder for others that for her, it isn’t confined to just a month. She is always aware of mental health, and the need to prioritize her mental health care.  

“Mental health awareness is a daily occurrence for me,” she said. “I need to pay very close attention and be very aware of my mental health needs constantly…if not, my OCD will rear its head and intensify, and then that ends up affecting every area of my life. Once I get in an OCD cycle, it can be very difficult for me to disrupt the cycle and move on with my day .” 

But Mental Health Awareness Month is also an opportunity. People who don’t have mental health conditions can get great benefits out of being mindful of their mental health and wellness.  

“Therapy is valuable for everybody,” she said. “It does not matter if you have a mental health condition or not, we all can benefit from having a toolkit of strategies when we’re in a rut.”  

She also encouraged people to learn more about mental health and challenge stereotypes. 

“There is so much misunderstanding around mental health,” she said, adding that just because it doesn’t look like it does in the movies doesn’t mean it isn’t real. “Don’t discredit anyone because they don’t fit the mold that you have in your mind of what OCD or anxiety or schizophrenia is supposed to be.” 

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky.  

Austin Nugent reflects on her experience in therapy, misdiagnosis, and the importance of finding a therapist you trust

Austin Nugent remembers the moment when someone first suggested she try therapy. 

“I was in Europe, and I called my mom from a four-star hotel on all-expense paid trip…and I called my mom from the hotel bathroom crying,” Nugent said. “She’s like, ‘why are you crying? Why are you so anxious? You’re on this once in a lifetime trip, and you’re still anxious.’ She was like, ‘When you get back, you’re going to therapy.’”

With help from her mom, Austin started seeing a therapist after she graduated college. However, she was still apprehensive to accept, and advocate for her mental health wants and needs. It wasn’t until she was talking to her brother, who has Down syndrome, when she realized that her mother might have been right. 

“I kind of had this a-ha moment…I would always talk to him about wanting to make sure he had pride in his disability, that concept of disability pride, owning his needs and feeling validated that he is human,” she said. “Somewhere along the way of having these conversations, I was like, ‘I feel a sense of hypocrisy because my needs are not being met.’”

Austin initially received a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). At the time, that made sense to her. After all, in general, she was anxious. But it was not the right answer – not really. She would spend seven years in treatment for GAD before realizing that wasn’t the answer. Then, after an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) specialist presented a case, Austin’s husband suggested that she revisit her diagnosis. Nugent contacted that specialist, who diagnosed her with ‘moderate to severe’ OCD. 

“I kind of had an identity crisis,” she said. “For the past seven years, I’d been the girl with generalized anxiety disorder. What do you mean I don’t have that? What do you mean that’s all been a lie?”

On top of that, the most common therapy for GAD, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), can be counterproductive to OCD treatment. That meant that not only did Nugent change her treatment plan to OCD therapy, she also had to spend time unlearning much of what she had learned in her previous treatment. 

“Everything I am feeling is still the same, but the way we approach it is so different,” she said. “There was a point where I really struggled with being angry at the mental healthcare system. It wasn’t anyone’s fault, but the fact that I had been misdiagnosed for so long…to know I’d spent seven years feeding my OCD and making it that much more intense meant it was that much harder to get a grasp when I finally received my diagnosis.”

Nugent says it can be difficult to find high-quality holistic mental healthcare: care that takes into account all of a person’s needs. There’s a shortage of mental health professionals, and by the time people seek help, they may have already hit a crisis point. 

And there are times when it’s difficult to tell when a condition is a symptom of something or just a general emotional response. People without mental health conditions can also experience periods of anxiety and depression. 

Nugent also stressed that people should not be afraid of medication. 

“My therapist was trying to open my eyes to the idea of medication,” she said. “I was so resistant. I was like ‘I don’t need meds,’ because of that stigma around medication. She explained that taking medication for a mental health condition is no different than if you have a broken foot and you put a cast on it and you use crutches until your bone is stable enough to walk on its own…that’s no different from mental health medication. It’s helping support your brain until you can develop those coping mechanisms and strategies to do it on your own.”

While it’s important to build coping strategies, it’s also important to have a support network. Sometimes that takes the form of an encouraging friend or partner, and sometimes it’s something as simple as having a pet to snuggle with. 

One of the most important aspects of having a support network is a therapist you can trust. Just like other relationships, not every therapist will be an ideal fit. Nugent says it’s important to trust your instincts. 

“I think we as humans, to a degree, know if something is helpful or if it’s maybe just filling time and space,” she said, adding that sometimes, “finding the right therapist, one that you feel comfortable with, yet is going to challenge you, can be difficult.” 

“I cannot tell you how many times I’m in a therapy session and I am so clammy, my heart is racing, because we’re actually unpacking and trying to work through what I need to work through,” she said. “That is uncomfortable. Behavior change and facing our anxiety is uncomfortable. If it felt good, we’d be more willing to do it.” 

But in the end, Nugent stressed that everyone’s journey looks different.

“There is no right path on a mental health journey,” she said. “It’s certainly not a linear path.” This means that there’s also room for people to cut themselves some slack if they have a rough day.

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky. 

Thoughts from HDI’s Glen Jennings On Autism Acceptance Month

This April, we recognize Autism Acceptance Month. This is a month where we celebrate what autistic people are capable of and work to support mainstream acceptance of autistic people. But it’s also a time to recognize systemic obstacles to autistic people. 

And there are many. 

Think about the ways in which society has a normative model of social interaction, and all the ways in which someone who cannot follow that model might be at a disadvantage. If you’re in a job interview, not making enough eye contact to satisfy your interviewer may put you out of a job that you’d otherwise have, but forcing eye contact is often difficult for autistic people. Even against an otherwise equal neurotypical candidate, an autistic applicant is at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. Once in a job, work environments can be uninclusive. Office social structures can be difficult to navigate, office politics can leave us at a brutal disadvantage, especially among autistic people with customer-facing jobs. Factors like this are likely just one part of the reason autistic people have a catastrophically low employment rate. 

Though the social aspects of autism are the most visible to neurotypical people, there are a host of other ways that life in the workplace and beyond is challenging. Sensory issues can make it difficult to navigate the world. I always have at least two pairs of polarized sunglasses close to me because bright sunlight is hard to see in and gives me a massive headache. The general noise of loud environments with a lot of conversational buzz can quickly become overwhelming. And fluorescent lights – which are used in many offices, schools, or grocery stores – can cause headaches. Staying under them for too long is physically exhausting for me, and there are many times in my life where I’ve had no real choice but to do so. 

We navigate a world that was not built with us in mind. Acceptance Month is about moving towards one that is. 

But while that discussion is important, I think we shouldn’t end the conversation there. 

As an autistic person, I feel like I also have a lot of joy to celebrate this month. 

The national view of autism has, despite these obstacles, changed radically in the since I was diagnosed almost 25 years ago. And as someone who’s so fond of pointing out that autism isn’t all doom and gloom, it feels wrong to point only to the areas where we face obstacles. 

So I want to celebrate how far we’ve come. How people are more educated about autism in this day and age than ever before. And that only leads to better outcomes for autistic people – fewer obstacles to diagnosis, which have historically been many especially for women and people of color, more acceptance and understanding and wider access to accommodations and resources. 

The fight isn’t over, but we’ve made incredible progress. 

And more than that, I want to celebrate community. An incredible autistic community has formed over the past few decades, focusing on self-advocacy and embracing our authentic and autistic selves. 

We see the world in unique ways, we have special interests that allow us to love and appreciate the world around us with such depth, and we can bring such unique perspectives and sensibilities to the world. 

And the more we obliterate those obstacles, the more autistic people will grow to recognize and accept the potential they have. And by accepting that potential, you get a better world – whether you’re autistic or not.

This month, we celebrate autistic people. This month, we work for a future where autistic people feel heard and included, and where people value us like they would anyone else.

This article represents the opinions of the author and interviewee, not that of the University of Kentucky.