A diagnosis of mental illness can be shocking for both the patient and their loved ones and, unfortunately, lead to a lack of support. Prior to my husband’s schizophrenia diagnosis, I held a skewed view of mental illness believed the stigma surrounding it. After his diagnosis, I repeatedly asked myself why it couldn’t be something more seemingly straightforward, such as anxiety or depression. I learned to accept his illness over time, but it is difficult when others are not able to do the same. The lack of support we've been shown in our struggle hurts.
Mental Illness and Stigma
Mental health advocacy for a loved one fights the stigma that exists in the most unlikely places. The past few weeks were quite overwhelming. Following a stay in a psychiatric ward, my husband was released. We dealt with multiple issues during that stay, including poor psychiatric care and a bizarre meeting with a highly unethical psychiatrist to discuss said care. In short, be aware that psychiatric hospitalization, while very important, also may lend itself to abuse of power. Involve yourself in your loved one's care because mental health advocacy for your loved one is crucial.
This post was particularly difficult for me to write because mental health hospitalization is not easy to talk about thanks to mental health hospitalization stigma. This stigma is profound, and both the stigma and the hospitalization itself places great strain on both the individual requiring treatment and their loved ones. I struggled with what to write, who to write it for, and if I should even post at all. If you know me or have read my page, you will know that I write for HealthyPlace because my husband has a mental illness. He has a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He also writes for HealthyPlace as a coauthor of "Creative Schizophrenia." Since his last hospitalization, we moved halfway across the country, had our third child, bought a house to renovate, found good jobs, and learned to work through his minor relapses. A couple of days ago, his condition deteriorated. He suffered a significant relapse and displayed signs of dealing with a significant psychotic episode. Even though I blog about coping with a family member's mental illness, I dreaded what came next and the response from those around us. As I drove him to the hospital, I felt the sting of stigma over his mental health hospitalization.
We need to discuss mental illness and suicide with college students as every college student needs to be educated about these things. In a society where we educate our teenagers on birth control, alcohol and drug abuse, along with religious, racial, and gender preference awareness, we are failing to educate our college-bound teenagers on mental health issues. For their own wellbeing, we must educate every college student on mental illness and suicide.
If you belong to a family with mental illness, you need a support group. Between the genetic factors of mental illness and their coexisting conditions and effects (addiction, codependency, criminal activity, divorce, abuse, and more), families with mental illness need a place to sort it all out with people who share their experiences. Different from one-on-one therapy or chatting with a friend, you can find strength, validation, and belonging in a support group for families with mental illness.
Mothering with an invisible mental illness is challenging. I know you couldn’t see my mental illness when you were sitting next to me at “back to school” night. You couldn't see the bipolar medications I swallow twice a day or the 14 years of therapy that have equipped me to behave so normally. You can’t see my bipolar 1 disorder, but sometimes I wish you could. I'm mothering with an invisible mental illness.
Tim has announced that when he turns 21 next summer he wants to move out. I can’t begin to explain all the ways that frightens me. Except for this past February when he knew he needed a few days inpatient, Tim has been stable for just over a year. I never, ever thought we would get to this place. He even spent two straight weeks alone with my parents in July, helping them with chores around the house and playing miniature golf. He hasn’t been able to do that since he was nine. Moving out means Tim will have to be responsible for all the things he doesn't realize he relies on us for, and for all the things he is responsible for now, but I remind him about almost daily. We can teach him these things, yes. But what we can’t teach him scares me more, namely, how to keep him safe out in a world that may automatically assume he’s dangerous, and may be dangerous to him because he trusts too much.
I enjoy reading blogs written by other parents. It’s great that the Internet has given us a virtual park bench on which to sit and share ideas, tips, frustrations, and joys. I read all kinds of parenting blogs (I dislike the term, “mommy blogger”), not just those about raising special needs kids. I say this as preface to what has historically been a statement that has elicited blow back. Here it comes: I cringe when a parent blogger contributes to mental illness stigma with their blog title.
Sometimes, the only way I get a sense of what my son, Ben, goes through as he hears voices and tries to process them is through his poetry and prose: I feel like everybody is piecing together this huge puzzle and I was born with it already solved. I guess that’s a post-life thing. But with me it’s always been about diving deeper. Delving and diving in gray water depths instead of trying to pull that water up to your level where its shade is altered. Its as a different sun shine in your in your world a mirror of a sort that you struggle to see for in refusing to see yourself in disacceptance you are condemned to see it everywhere you go on everyone else’s face….wow I am really showing myself now the strange level these “normal” people live on….hard it be to shatter these dreams of them so solidified by causality taken as righteousness. And the illusion of consciousness. - Ben, 2002 But today I got a different perspective, thanks to my guest blogger, Katherine Walters, who, like Ben, has schizophrenia - but with more insight into it.
In our neighboring Newtown, Connecticut, too many families are steeling themselves for the anniversary of an unspeakable tragedy: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. I've recently been interviewed for an article (coming out soon) about whether I think the Mental Health system in Connecticut has changed in the year since the incident. My answer? Not yet, not that I can see. If anything, we're in danger of sweeping the issues under the rug once again. But the questions remain: Could it have been prevented? Should someone have seen the "signs"? And - more usefully, perhaps - what can be done to help stop future tragedy?