Volunteers: Garret Shaw and Cynthia Sirota volunteer in the local area. Courtesy photo

When Garret Shaw was hospitalized with mental illness for the 26th time, the doctors told his mother Cynthia Sirota that long-term recovery was but a pipe dream.

Fast forward 14 years and Shaw now has a masters degree in clinical psychology, is employed as a support group counselor at Tulua health in Santa Monica, and has dedicated his life to helping others battle mental illness.

Overcoming the doctors’ bleak prognosis was not easy. The road to recovery was paved with pain, fear, stress, and trauma for both Shaw and Sirota. But thanks to their endless patience and persistence, they have shown even with the most severe diagnoses—like Shaw’s debilitating combination of Schizophrenia and Bipolar disease—there is hope. 

“The chief of staff, doctor and all the interns sat me down and said ‘I don’t think we’re going to be able to bring Garrett back.’ That was such devastating news for me,” said Sirota. “I didn’t understand what the doctors were saying, I couldn’t understand, and I told my son I’m giving you my arms and my legs, but I will get you well; I will do everything I could possibly do to help you.”

On this week’s episode of The Dive, an Inside the Daily Press podcast, Shaw and Sirota share their story, exposing the broken aspects of our mental healthcare system and spreading awareness of the resources that are out there.

Top of their resource list is the West LA chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), an organization they credit with helping save Shaw’s life and mind. 

After passing through NAMI’s support groups and educational classes several times, they now lead these sessions for individuals experiencing mental illness and their families. On the second and fourth Saturday of every month, the pair can be found tabling for NAMI West LA at the Pico Farmers Market in Virginia Avenue Park. 

“This is actually a really happy story. There’s a lot of mental health stories out there that are very sad and depressing, but this really is a story about a young man who got an illness that had no idea what it was, a mother who stood by his son through thick and thin, and now I have this great opportunity with NAMI to really give back,” said Shaw. 

Their story also demonstrates how mental illness is an equal opportunity disorder that can strike anyone at any time.

Shaw was in his junior year of studies at USC when mental illness first entered his life. A smart and hardworking student, he had many friends, great grades, and by everyone’s predictions nothing but a bright future ahead.

What actually lay ahead was many years of suffering, anger and delusion, passed largely under the harsh fluorescent lighting of various psychiatric wards.

“Being in a psychiatric hospital can cause a lot of trauma, walking around in a gown with your back exposed, wearing little socks, being in a very intense environment with people you don’t know that are sick. It can be very, very scary,” said Shaw. “I’ve had to go into a room and they’ve had to restrain me and it’s very scary when you can’t trust your own thoughts and you don’t really understand what’s going on.”

Shaw was initially misdiagnosed with depression and given anti-anxiety pills, which was a dangerous combination for someone with manic symptoms of Bipolar disorder. He ended up having a psychotic break while studying abroad in Israel, causing great stress for Sirota who was unable to immediately help her son from so many miles away.

The next few years were marked by an revolving door of psychiatric hospital stays for Shaw, and great stress for Sirota as she navigated a healthcare system that she felt often viewed the mentally ill as problems not patients and family members as pests not partners. 

The pair ultimately exited the mental health hospital system with a wealth of knowledge on what could be done better to assist individuals on a policy level, with potential new legislation, and on a personal level, with resources that are already available. The full story of how this mother son duo beat the odds can be listened to on the “Inside the Daily Press” podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Play. Visit smdp.com/pod for more information. 

Resources discussed by Cynthia and Shaw include:  

NAMI support groups: https://namila.org/supportgroups/

NAMI peer and family mental health classes: https://namila.org/classes/

Ending the Silence Program: https://namila.org/ending-the-silence/

Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center 24/7 Helpline: 877-727-4747

LA County Department of Mental Health Crisis 24/7 Hotline: 800-854-7771.

The NAMI Crisis Text Line: text NAMI to 741741.

NAMI Warm Line: 310-889-7200