Beverly Miller has lent her experience to a unique government study probing the family genetics behind bipolar disorder. Now the Wauseon resident will join the researchers in a local presentation to discuss their continued testing.
Dr. Francis McMahon, the head researcher from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., will invite the public to hear the information on Sunday, Nov. 5, from 5-7 p.m., at Central Mennonite Church, 21703 State Route 2 in Archbold, He will delve into the institute’s international study of people with bipolar disorder who by heritage are Amish and Mennonites, and discuss the search for more effective medications to treat the hereditary mental illness.
“Even though it’s the Mennonites and Amish that they’re using, it’s not just the Amish and Mennonites that are interested in what they’re finding,” Miller said.
Those of Amish and Mennonite heritage were selected as test participants due to their clearer genetic histories, she said. Those histories are due to fewer ancestors and, until the most recent generation, a tradition of marrying within the faith.
They were also chosen due to their traditionally larger families and, in most cases, a lack of drug and alcohol use.
By studying the clearer genetic pools within Amish and Mennonite families the researchers hope to find treatments that work for the different genetic combinations that result in the mental illness. Bipolar disorder is characterized by a combination of depressive lows and manic highs.
Miller, 65, a Fulton County native and a Mennonite, contacted NIMH around 2012 after seeing its notice in Mennonite Magazine asking for test participants. After verifying she was bipolar, Miller was interviewed in her home, and blood samples were taken from her and her mother, who has since died.
She kept in touch with the researchers, and in 2016 visited NIMH, where she agreed to more testing that included giving skin samples. Miller was told the samples would be duplicated in order to create stem cells. She was also told the researchers could produce mini brains from her skin samples, allowing the researchers to test which medications work on bipolar disorder.
Because they expressed reluctance to intrude on Amish and Mennonite communities around the country, Miller submitted “Up, Down, and Moving On: Bipolar and Medication” to Mennonite Magazine. Published in July 2016, her article encouraged people of the faith and with bipolar disorder to not only enter the NIMH study but to suggest it to others.
“The reason I wrote the story was to try to encourage Mennonite churches across the United States to put a notice in their church newsletter so that people could participate,” she said.
In the article, Miller didn’t shy away from her own experiences with the mental illness. “I also felt it was important for people that could take that responsibility to know how excruciatingly painful it is to be bipolar,” she said.
Her personal odyssey began in her 20s, while she taught at a Mennonite school in Oregon State. Following a major psychotic episode there in 1975, she was brought by her parents back to Fulton County. She was hospitalized from Thanksgiving to Christmas.
The following year she was treated with medication. “All I can say is, that was a year of depression,” she said. “I lost my whole career. I’d been good at what I did, and then all of a sudden I failed everything.”
By the following January, however, Miller reverted to manic behavior that magnified her emotions and resolve. As an example, she went to extremes over a simple statement about cleaning in cold water by filling the bathtub and tossing in everything she could find, including her parents’ prescription medication and her father’s electric razor.
“My mind was racing,” Miller recalled. “They definitely knew something was wrong.”
She was hospitalized for a month. After hearing the opinion she would be in and out of hospitals her entire life, Miller decided she couldn’t continue.
“That summer, I was just praying that God would just come down and take me home. I couldn’t live another day,” she said.
A suicide attempt placed Miller in the hospital for another month. In April of 1977, she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and prescribed lithium, a stabilizer.
Over the years her medication has been changed for better results, and Miller has become co-owner with her brother of Miller Tire in Wauseon.
In September, NIMH asked Miller to participate in local testing with her brother and two sisters so their genetics can be compared. She agreed, and invited the researchers while they are here to present their findings to the Fulton County community. She will be part of the Nov. 5 presentation, offering her story and words of encouragement and hope.
“Life has been good, in fact to the extent that people are surprised that I have a mental health issue\,” she said. “I have had so many good years.”
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.