What’s it like to have a mental crisis? Here’s just the person to tell you.

Sam Shew wants to be an activist — crusader might be a more accurate term — for the human rights of mentally ill people.

His passion is not a legal or political battle, but more the promotion of a radical empathy in the care of a person in the grip of an acute mental crisis. Shew came to the realization of his purpose in life during his first manic episode at age 30.

Although he now says matter of factly, “I fundamentally believe every person on the planet is on their own mental wellness journey,” his trip from there to here was considerably more dramatic than most.

It began at a sales conference in San Diego where his mental state became elevated as he worked the crowd of 4,000. He felt an intense connection with every person he talked to — and he talked to many — and they reciprocated, making him feel powerful in a way he had never before experienced.

He imagined creating a company, Humans Connecting Humans to Humans, and went to his hotel room, filled with love and resolve, to start registering website domains. A graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in industrial systems, Shew began drawing complex diagrams of the ways in which love could open the world complete with numerical notations of the order in which he drew the lines that made up the schematic. The drawings, which he later shredded, had dried wrinkled from tears of elation at his vision of hope.

He returned to Boulder and went for a hike with his fiancee near the National Center for Atmospheric Research. As they reached the NCAR parking lot, his mental state became so intense that he began crying uncontrollably. His fiancee called a mutual friend and the two gently convinced him that he needed to go to the hospital.

After a quick assessment, he was given scrubs to wear and, as a precaution, put into a room where he could not hurt himself. Shew began to think about how he was being treated by staff, not at all unkindly or against protocol, but in a way that still made him feel anonymous and powerless.

When medical personnel came in, he would make suggestions about how he should be treated to give him a greater sense of dignity and autonomy.

“Why not let me choose from a rack of clothes, rather than telling me what to wear?”

“Why not take me skiing and get to know me to evaluate me?"

While the specifics of his suggestions may not have been workable, he sees them now as having the right spirit behind them.

He was hospitalized for 11 days, is now on medication and works with the Sutherland Bipolar Center in Boulder, which provides services specifically for those with bipolar disorder.

The center is not an emergency facility, but rather provides outpatient services to help its clients manage bipolar disorder, said R. Rachel Cruz, executive director. Clients sign a six-month contract with the center, which helps them create a routine so they can more easily monitor their moods. Good nutrition and exercise are also emphasized. Sutherland typically has about a six-week wait for new clients.

Cruz agrees with Shew’s assessment of mental crisis care in which emergency rooms serve as a costly waystation to other care. While Boulder County has more mental health options than most places in the state, care is still not sufficient to cover all those who need it when they need it.

by Cindy Sutter