The summer before Neil Barber’s junior year in high school, he and three of his buddies decided to experiment with marijuana. Neil’s dad, Greg, recalls the four of them getting “pretty rocked,” but Neil being the only one unable to recover. “Perhaps the marijuana was laced with something,” Greg wonders. “But I also believe the drug may have been a catalyst to my son’s mental illness.” Up to that point, Neil was a popular, outgoing, gifted athlete with a bright future in Division 1 Lacrosse. But that October, Greg noticed startling red flags in Neil’s behavior: “He suddenly became a loner, lost all his confidence as an athlete, and couldn’t focus or concentrate.”
Neil’s parents took him to a psychiatrist, where he was misdiagnosed with depression. The doctor prescribed Prozac, which he took for about 2 years without improvement. In October of his freshman year of college, Neil suffered his second psychotic break, and began hearing voices and suffering extreme paranoia.
Neil was later diagnosed with schizophrenia and for over 22 years he has fought it valiantly. Until he was 16, Neil was every parents dream. He was a kind, sensitive, funny, spirited son who was a devil and a truly gifted athlete. He excelled in every sport he ever tried. Greg admits that he was in denial about Neil’s final diagnosis, "I didn’t want to admit to myself that Neil was mentally ill." Neil’s life with mental illness has caused isolation, loss of confidence, and loss of Community, ie: loss of his friends.
Happily, the story took a bright turn in 2009, when Greg ran into Neil’s high school lacrosse coach, Bob Rule, at a lacrosse reunion. When Greg told Bob what had became of his son, Bob decided to visit Neil at the hospital. “I was amazed and elated,” said Greg, “that Bob wanted to visit Neil. Bob said to Neil, ‘You are a respected member of the lacrosse community, and we will never forget you.” Bob started telling his middle school students about Neil, and how courageous he is in battling his disorder, and the kids were very inspired. “For 10 years,” Greg explains, “Neil only had 4 visitors. Suddenly, 250 kids wanted to reach out and help.” Greg suggested the kids donate food to homeless shelters and raise money for brain research. That’s when Neil’s Wheels NY was born. “I chose to donate the money raised to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation because,” says Greg, “the only way Neil will get better is for somebody to find a cure for him.” Neil’s Wheels NY has taken off, and more than $5000 has already gone toward funding NARSAD Grants. Recently, the NY Islanders even hosted their own Neil’s Wheels event! Greg has also found a way to give back to other families: he speaks to and educates the students about mental illness. He tells them that their “gift to my son is the collective donation. My gift to you is to tell you about mental illness and encourage you to not keep mental illness a secret.”
Neil’s isolation was also about to take a turn for the better. In 2009, Greg logged onto Facebook and began reconnecting with some of his son’s high school chums. The connections grew, and Neil was suddenly reunited online with 120 old friends. Greg brings his laptop to the hospital and helps Neil post replies and messages. Greg explains: “The computer has been a minor miracle to my son emotionally and mentally. In the hospital, he has little socialization. But online, he has reconnected with everybody, and some of his old buddies have come to visit. It’s changed his life – he can communicate with the outside world again.” Greg continues, “The computer has also helped him focus and concentrate. He is now able to talk to me for almost an hour, as opposed to a couple of minutes.”
Greg tells the students and families he speaks to that “there are success stories” out there, and “not everybody with mental illness wants to do awful things [as the media suggests]. Many people with mental illness go to Ivy League colleges, have successful careers, and live full, productive lives.”
For the first time in a long time, Greg can look to the future with hope: “Three years ago, if you asked me what I thought about Neil, I’d say he’s just marking his time in the institution till he dies. But now, I can say God had a different purpose for me and my son. We are making a difference to so many families. I feel pretty good about it.”