Once ill, now he helps others recover

COPAKE—His journey from the darkness of mental illness to the light of recovery will be the subject of a presentation by Brian Belt at the Roeliff Jansen Community Library, 9091 Route 22, September 12 at 6:30 p.m.

The presentation is sponsored by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Columbia County. His mother, Alice Belt of Copake, serves on the organization’s Board of Directors.

The Columbia Paper recently sat down with Mr. Belt, 47, of Hudson at the Rev Café on Warren Street to get a preview of his presentation.

Mr. Belt says up until a certain point his life was “normal.” He grew up in the Midwest, moved east, graduated from Horace Greeley High School in Chappaqua, Westchester County, and went on to study at Pomona College in California.

He had “problems with alcohol” since he was 14 and by his early 20s had been in rehab a couple of times. In his early 30s from 1998 to 2000, he had a wife and son and was living in Eureka, CA, where he was a case manager working with teens and adults with mental illness in a locked-down psychiatric unit.

Four years later in 2004, he had a nervous breakdown in Thailand and in 2007 was diagnosed with schizophrenia.

The events leading up to the breakdown and continuing until his final return to the U.S. are the stuff of X-Files, said Mr. Belt. He recounted a scenario involving his then nine-year-old son, whom he believed had fallen into the hands of political extremists in Thailand.

He described having lost his sense of identity and reality. He threw away his passport and became lost in the jungle, literally. He was thrown into a psychiatric ward in Chiang Mai. He consumed bottles of whiskey “to snuff out his thought process” and fell out of touch with his family. Several weeks passed, his family hired the Pinkerton Agency to track him down and he eventually returned home with his father, whom he believed was a CIA agent who could give him the answers to his questions.

That was not the finish of Mr. Belt’s foreign travels, not the last of “being thrown in and out” of psychiatric wards or the end of his attempts to “drink his thought process into submission.”

But things did begin to look up about three years ago when he found his way to the Hearth Community Residence in Philmont, where he met Don Webber, his teacher and mentor. Diagnosed with major depression himself, Mr. Webber not only helped Mr. Belt deal with his mental illness but set him on the road to recovery.

Among the tools his mentor introduced Mr. Belt to were Personalized Recovery Oriented Services (PROS) classes offered through the Mental Health Association of ColumbiaGreene Counties, Inc.

Dealing with a range of topics from coping and living skills to anger management, the classes are completely optional and helped him move forward, Mr. Belt said.

So much so, that Mr. Belt taught a 12-week session on the History of Mental Illness for which he completed extensive research and lesson plans. The course covered the chronology treatments, humane and inhumane, beginning with Hippocrates through the Middle Ages, exorcisms, asylums, Salem witchcraft trials, hypnosis, psychiatry, shock therapy, Eugenics and psychotic medications such as thorazine.

He currently teaches a PROS class on the Recovery Movement, which encompasses all current schools of thought on mental health and mental illness.

Mr. Belt also leads an outreach effort once a week at Columbia Memorial Hospital to bring the message of hope and recovery to those newly admitted to the hospital psychiatric ward.

The work he is doing is at the forefront of the recovery movement, he said.

Asked if he thought of his recovery as fragile, Mr. Belt responded in a follow-up email: “Life in general is fragile–tomorrow I could be walking down the street then a gust of wind put a fleck of dirt in my eye–temporarily blinded while I try to rub the dirt out of my eye–I might stumble into the road and get hit by a car… this actually almost happened to me.”

Mr. Belt said he cannot claim credit for bringing himself to his current state of recovery, but believes a “higher power,” his mentor and his mother are responsible.

“I do credit my mother for helping my ass out, she never gave up.”

To contact Diane Valden email .


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