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Mayoral candidate uses tragedy to combat stigma of mental illness

Buffalo mayoral candidate Taniqua Simmons has been a community activist for the past 25 years, often using others' tragedies to push for social change.

Last year, she met with City of Buffalo officials to urge them to replace deteriorating sidewalks in the Humboldt Park neighborhood after a 7-month-old baby was killed by a car on Moselle Street. The mother had taken the stroller into the street because the sidewalk – which has since been replaced – was crumbling and uneven.

And as a community organizer with the advocacy group Power in Numbers, Simmons put together a peaceful protest at Martin Luther King Jr. Park after African-American men were killed by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Hundreds of community members showed up to the protest, and Simmons was the first person to step up to the megaphone.

Such activism and the ability spur societal improvement is one of the reasons the Libertarian Party candidate decided to run for mayor in the November general election.

But her latest cause – breaking the stigma of mental health disease – stems from personal experience.

Early last Friday, Simmons' 22-year-old son JaVaughn McNab jumped from the East Ferry Street overpass onto the eastbound Kensington Expressway in a suicide attempt, Simmons said.

There is no history of mental illness in the family. McNab didn't start showing symptoms until earlier this year. And Simmons said she never had any problems with him growing up.

But what was particularly painful was the fact that some of the witnesses started filming the incident on Facebook Live as it unfolded, she said, while others shared it on social media. Still others copied photos of her son from her Facebook page and attached it to other posts announcing that he was the person who tried to kill himself.

It seemed that people were forgetting that her son is a real person and treated the incident like a scene from a reality television show.

"This is why people don't seek help," she said of those suffering from mental illness. "This is why people who need help don't get the help: the stigma."

"Just like people who have diabetes and cancer, anyone can have a mental health issue. Some of us have mental health issues and are treating it with drugs and alcohol instead of seeking medical treatment. People are forgetting he's a real person … now he's having an issue and people think it's entertainment when it should be a learning lesson. When people have mental illness, they still need the same support as someone who has cancer or diabetes."

After the incident, McNab – who had graduated cum laude from Medaille College last month with a degree in criminal justice – was taken to Erie County Medical Center, where he is in critical condition in the trauma intensive care unit, Simmons said. He is in a medically induced coma; but miraculously, he is alive and getting better, she said.

"It's just so amazing. I think God is so good. He didn't break any bones. He fractured three of his ribs. He sustained a head injury. He had some fractured bones in his face. Everything is fully intact," Simmons said in a telephone interview Monday. "Yesterday when I went to see him, he grabbed my hand and opened his eyes. He's been responding to all of their (medical staff's) commands."

Simmons said doctors removed part of her son's skull to relieve pressure on his brain, putting the piece of skull in his stomach to preserve it until the pressure on his brain subsides.

McNab started displaying signs of mental illness earlier this year, Simmons said. One day in January, he seemed very confused. Simmons took him to ECMC, but medical staff could not pinpoint what type of mental health issues he was having. McNab was admitted for a week and prescribed an anti-psychotic, she said. He began feeling better and was doing fine when he came off the medication this past February, but Simmons said she thinks maybe his college graduation last month "probably triggered another issue for him."

After a suicide attempt in early June, she took him back to ECMC where he stayed for another week and his dosage of the drug was increased.

"He came home after that, and he really didn’t like the side effects of the drugs," Simmons said. "He said that he didn't like the way they made him feel."

The family had planned to take him back to the hospital when disaster struck again Friday. It was about 5:30 a.m., everyone in the house was asleep and Simmons was at her job at an independent living facility.

"When I got home I couldn't find him. I was worried. He had left his money, his identification, all the things you would take with you when you leave the house," Simmons said.

She contacted Crisis Services, Buffalo Police and posted on Facebook that she and her family were looking for him.

"When I got back home and went back on Facebook to see if there was any new information, a posting said a young man had jumped off the expressway by my house," Simmons said. "I knew it was him. I was devastated."

She said her son is going through a lot and needs to know he is not alone – just like the countless other young people who are going through depression, anxiety and other mental health issues in silence.

"At that age, you're trying to figure out who you are, trying to figure out what you want to do and now you have this issue. Every one of them needs to seek treatment as opposed to feeling isolated. You don't want to be labeled or thought of as 'less than' because nobody can see your illness," Simmons said. "I can only imagine what other families are going through."

As for the campaign trail, Simmons said she's still in the race to become Buffalo's next mayor, and she's optimistic about her son's future. She hopes to have him with her as she works towards that goal.

"A lot of people have invested a lot of time in my campaign, and my son was really excited about me running. He was looking forward to going out and gathering signatures," she said. "We're just very hopeful. We're very positive. I believe he's going to make a full recovery."

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