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Recovery Champion: Srecko Toroman

In looks and speech, Srecko Toroman resembles his father, Gojko, a beekeeper who flew from Belgrade to Silicon Valley for a visit last summer. But on a shopping trip for men’s suits they realized they had different tastes in ties, and what a man chooses to wear around his neck says a lot about him.

“I’ve always liked the look of bowties,” Srecko said at a Men’s Wearhouse store in Fremont. He chose a classy, polka dotted light blue one. Dad went for a traditional, but loud, striped tie.

As the former Yugoslavia ripped apart from political upheavals and wars, the elder Toroman father moved his family to a small town safe enough to allow his studious son to pursue his dream of becoming a philosopher or psychologist one day. Instead, young Srecko discovered computers.

A whiz in high school, Toroman won the Bosnia Olympics of computing and later a scholarship to study in Belgrade, Serbia. Needing part-time work, he hooked up with a start-up company based in Palo Alto, which was eventually snapped up by Facebook. Impressed by his talent, the budding social media brought Toroman to Silicon Valley in 2011 through the highly coveted H1B visa immigration program for highly skilled workers.

“I never planned to leave home and come here,” the software engineer said at his home in Fremont. “But this sounded like a good opportunity.”

It was until the opportunity almost vanished in early 2014.

“I suddenly felt stressed for no real reason, and I had chest pains,” Toroman said. His symptoms worsened in a matter of days. He couldn’t sleep, felt depressed and lonely. “I isolated myself. I didn’t go out.”

His first breakdown occurred at Facebook. Someone in the employee assistance department asked if he felt suicidal. When he nodded, they called 911. Paramedics whisked him to Stanford Hospital.

“It was total cognitive disarray,” he said. “They had no idea what was happening to me.”

Stanford referred him to Momentum for Health’s La Selva residential treatment center in Palo Alto, whose doctors diagnosed him with Schizoaffective disorder. Especially cruel and complex, the illness brings on delusions, hallucinations, depression and mania.

He has droopy, hazel eyes, medium-brown hair and a delicate face that complement his easy-going manner. Now 28, Toroman found his niche in the little known field of “compassion engineering.” His team writes programs that strive to protect young and vulnerable Facebook users from sexual predators, pornographers, online bullies, and to flag the suicidal posts on the network.

However careful he had become at protecting others online, Toroman initially rejected the dosages of anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs his doctors prescribed for him.

“I thought it was something bad, unhealthy,” he said. The doctors relented and lowered the dosages, but Toroman’s gambit backfired. “I went psychotic again.”

The relapse got him admitted to Momentum’s ECHO apartments, an Extended Counseling and Housing Opportunity program. He’s been able to manage his symptoms ever since. Toroman said Facebook welcomed him back and he has not felt stigmatized by anyone there. He said he wouldn’t want to work for any company, high tech or not, that can’t understand that employees with mental illnesses can overcome them with proper treatment and lead normal, productive lives. This inspired him to start his own nonprofit for online mental health support.

Toroman also credits his visits to Momentum for a blessing he never anticipated. Even before he was afflicted by his illness, he was aware that, as an immigrant in a hyper-focused high-tech job, he didn’t get out much or socialize outside of his ethnic group and workaholic cohort.

“I always wanted to integrate more with people, with Americans,” he said. “I felt like I was at home in America for the first time.”