Hope and possibility, however, were unimaginable upon first hearing her family member’s diagnosis. Despite worrisome and progressive behavioral changes, she and her family never imagined what they would hear from clinicians.
“My experience, like so many families, was that there was nothing to prepare me for what happens emotionally or financially with a diagnosis like this,” said Cutrell. “It’s a pretty devastating thing—for both the individual who has the onset of this illness, as well as the family.”
Cutrell found there were few community resources available for families who were facing mental illness of a loved one for the first time. It was through McLean Hospital that she learned the latest research about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
“I went to a lecture about what was happening with mental illness research in the laboratory. The imagery of those cells in the lab was remarkable,” she said. “I was brought to tears, as it helped me understand this illness was systemic and that it wasn't something we caused. It was visual recognition of a real impact on life, and at the same time, a relief to see it.”
That lecture, hosted by NAMI Cambridge-Middlesex, was given by Bruce M. Cohen, MD, PhD, director of McLean’s Program for Neuropsychiatric Research, the founding director of the McLean Brain Imaging Center, and president and psychiatrist in chief emeritus of McLean Hospital from 1997 to 2005.
Cohen suggested that Cutrell become involved in NAMI. She welcomed the opportunity and served as president of NAMI Massachusetts for two years and also served on the organization’s national board of directors in Washington, DC.
Through advocacy work, Cutrell met hundreds of individuals and families and embarked upon her own mission to learn about their experiences with mental illness. She wanted to know more not only about their problems, but also about those who were in recovery and doing well.
“I asked people about their experiences in their own recovery and what I found out is that it’s not the end of life as we know it—it’s the beginning of a different kind of life,” she said. “I met a young woman who got her master's degree from Harvard after her diagnosis. I began to meet many individuals who went on to get their master’s degree, and some who went on to get their PhDs and had become doctors.”
“I thought, ‘how come I never heard this was possible?’ What I was facing initially was that there was complete limitation of productivity, love, life in general. No one told me anything different, nothing hopeful. I began to try and figure out what was most important to recovery and what I learned is that it was love and family,” she said, “but sometimes families give up because the prognosis sounds so final. Many were telling me the diagnosis would mean some form of institutional living.”
“One of the greatest comforts to me,” said Cutrell, “was to find out that it’s family that will ultimately be one of the most important components of recovery. There’s medication and treatment, but family and close friends are what primarily support the individual—it’s their foundation and what sustains them.”
“I wanted to communicate to other families what I learned and I wanted to do it quickly,” said Cutrell, who had spent 25 years in investments and was an adjunct professor at Boston College teaching marketing in the MBA program. She had left her job around the same time her family member's illness was developing, went to art school, and learned a different way of communicating: visual art.
“What I realized,” she said, “is that imagery communicates instantly. And it can show people recovery and to not think of this diagnosis as the end.”