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From illness to advocate
Cleveland resident Larry Fricks is honored for his work with mental health programs
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Larry Fricks discusses Richard Cohen's best-selling book, "Strong at the Broken Places."

Almost 20 years ago, Larry Fricks stood in front of the Habersham County Commission as a reporter for The Times.

Now the Cleveland resident has been presented a lifetime achievement award by New York Times best-selling author Richard Cohen at a star-studded awards ceremony in a Hollywood studio.

Last Wednesday, Cohen presented Fricks, who was one of the primary subjects of Cohen's book "Strong at the Broken Places," with the award given by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Fricks lives with bipolar disorder, and Cohen featured his story in his latest book along with four other Americans who awake each morning to face a day of pain and challenges as a result of their chronic illnesses.

Cohen said 90 million Americans have these illnesses.

"Mental illness is a large piece of the landscape of chronic illness," he said. "These are everyday people who live very difficult, challenging lives."

Cohen, who has multiple sclerosis himself and is a survivor of colon cancer, said it was important for him to include a mental illness in his book of hope in an effort to destigmatize the illness.

"People with chronic illnesses are marginalized and pushed to the side," he said. "I think mental illness needs to be brought into the family of all illnesses, and in a small way, we did that with this book."

Cohen said Fricks caught his eye as he began the three-year journey toward publishing the book because the Cleveland man didn't act like a victim. Instead, he took a proactive role in coping with his mental illness, going a step further by giving people with mental illnesses jobs to help themselves and others with mental disorders.

Fricks appeared on the "Today" TV show with Cohen in January, and has plans with the University of Georgia to build a nearly 2-acre memorial at St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C., in honor of all the mentally ill patients, often forgotten by their families, who have died in hospitals nationwide.

He's also working with state governments across the country to implement the Peer Support program that trains people with mental illness to help others progress through the setbacks of their disorders.

Before he was a reporter at The Times, Fricks spent much of the early '80s in and out of mental hospitals. He said he often coped with his bipolar disorder by abusing alcohol and cocaine.

After learning to live with his mental illness, Fricks said he found meaningful employment as a reporter.

Unwittingly, Fricks' transition from reporter to mental health advocate began at that Habersham County Commission meeting when he interrupted his note-taking.

Commissioners began fielding complaints from Habersham citizens who said they were staunchly against a day-recovery program for people with mental illnesses that sought establishment in the county. They didn't want "these people" in their community, he recalled.

At that point, Fricks violated his journalistic integrity. He put down his pen and spoke up.

He addressed the room of people: "I've been covering your meetings for three years, and I've been hospitalized for mental illness," he recalled saying.

"You could have heard a pin drop in the room," Fricks said.

Although the commission agreed to allow the day-recovery program to open in Habersham County, the reporter walked out of the meeting feeling disheartened.

The following day he received a phone call that changed the course of his life.

Cliff Rigby, who oversaw the public mental health services of Northeast Georgia, had attended the Habersham meeting. He invited Fricks to participate in mental health program meetings that later led to Fricks' involvement in organizing the Georgia Mental Health Consumer Network.

And in 1993, Fricks became the Georgia director of consumer relations and recovery for the state Mental Health Division. Six years later, he implemented a groundbreaking peer-to-peer program in Georgia that is now being used in numerous states across the country.

He said the Peer Support program not only helps people with mental illness more than traditional state mental institutions, but it's also cost effective.

Fricks said through his work in the mental health field, he feels he leads a fulfilling and meaningful life despite the setbacks he's faced due to mental illness. His hope is that his Peer Support program will take great strides toward changing attitudes on mental illness by showing that the 90 million Americans with mental illnesses are intertwined within our communities and are breaking through the barriers of discrimination.

"We are beginning to say to the establishment, ‘You are wrong,'" Fricks said. "We can go on to lead good lives."

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