Social Welfare Alum Recounts Mental Health Journey

“Eight years ago, when I was 22 years old, I tried to kill my dad,” Cohen Miles-Rath, ‘19 MSW, began in his talk, Transforming Our Approach to Mental Health: How My Crisis Could Have Been Prevented.

Miles-Rath, now a mental health advocate for the Mental Health Association in New York State, shared the story of his long and painful journey at the School of Social Welfare on April 17, part of the class, “The Art of Storytelling for Social Justice.”

The attack, the result of a psychotic episode, is what most people learn first about him, Miles-Rath explained, since headlines such as Man bites off father’s ear in knife attack are some of the first Google results on a search for his name. But those titles are a snapshot of what Miles-Rath was experiencing, and the mental health issues he struggled with for months following an injury that sidelined his promising college track career and resulted in a disastrous final cross country meet.

During his first psychotic episode in his final undergraduate year at SUNY Geneseo, he thought that he was on a mission to save the world, and was being sent signs to proceed with the mission. A professor recognized that he was making strange drawings and acting irrationally, and referred Miles-Rath to campus mental health support services, who reached out to the police. He was then led to the psychiatric unit of the hospital where he was put on medication to curb his manic thoughts.

He was released from the hospital, promptly stopped taking the medication, and proceeded with his mission, this time creating a Facebook page to share and educate others about his theory. He was brought to the hospital by the police a second time after loitering outside a church in the early hours of the morning, where he waited for an ex-girlfriend to show up at the church to marry him — something he believed was preordained.

He was released from the hospital three days later, and again stopped taking the prescribed medication. It was only days later when he attacked his father and was incarcerated. Miles-Rath now recognizes that while they treated the immediate symptoms in the hospital, there was no plan for treatment to continue with recovery after the hospital release; no plan for therapy or check-ins to ensure that he continued with the prescribed medications.

Recovery began for Miles-Rath while incarcerated. He was put on medication, had frequent meetings with a psychiatrist, and received letters from friends and family who recognized his actions and his illness, and offered their love and support. 

“When I received those letters, I finally accepted my mental illness,” he said. “And I started to embrace that treatment because I wanted those medications and that’s when I started recovering.”

Following his release, he continued with mandatory treatments and was able to complete the two remaining courses for his undergraduate degree, and decided to enroll at Stony Brook in the Master of Social Work (MSW) program to help others suffering from mental illness.

While at Stony Brook, he worked as a graduate assistant in the Office of Government and Community Relations, and found success both inside and outside of the classroom while employing the methods he learned to balance self-care and to prioritize his own mental health. Miles-Rath said the MSW program helped him to realize that his initial goal of becoming a therapist was no longer his dream.

“I went into my masters wanting to be a therapist counselor, but I came out wanting to do more macro social work, where you look at more systems policy, culture, and the bigger aspects of things that impact all our lives. What I really liked about the MSW program was that it left some doors open and I was able to find where my strengths were, and then pursue them,” he said. “I found my niche in my second year and my specialization, and that really set the tone for what I wanted to do after graduation, where I found a position that uses everything that I learned in the classroom, all those skills and knowledge that I developed while at Stony Brook.”

He identified several ways to transform the approach to mental health, including fostering social and emotional intelligence from childhood through adulthood; introducing mental health literacy to recognize the signs of mental illness; integrating health care and social care to ensure that hospital-based care will continue after release; and raising the voices of peers and the services they can provide, among others.

As a mental health advocate, Miles-Rath now works to end the stigma against mental illness. “What basis do we have to judge someone’s character when we don’t know enough about them or their situation? And what do these assumptions do for people who might actually need as much help as we can give them? My mental health crisis resulted in violence. It didn’t have to — prevention or intervention could have worked,” he said.

His memoir, Mending Reality: An Advocate’s Existential Journey with Mental Health — revealing the terror of untreated psychosis and outlining the help that could have prevented this crisis — is being considered for publication.

— Beth Squire

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