There is a stigma against parents who raise a child with mental illness. I felt this stigma against parents myself as I sat in my first National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) meeting, horror slowly crept up my body like a spider crawling across my skin. The organization provides education and support for both people suffering from mental illness and their families. I was attending a meeting for families but as I listened to one story after another, I was sure I didn’t belong (Stigma of Being Branded Bad Parents). But this was the stigma against parents who raise a child with mental illness rearing its ugly head.
The Stigma of Mental Illness on Parents
Their son was in jail; her daughter had stolen thousands of dollars before running off; their child had been hospitalized (again) and was now doing drugs.
I listened hard. I studied these parents to find the flaws—see the reason why they were in this mess. Surely, they were not like me. They must have done something—anything—to put themselves in that position. And, suddenly, I succumbed to the stigma of mental illness. I wanted them to be wrong so that their story would never become my story.
Mental Illness Is Prevalent
But, it was my story. And if you’re reading this, it’s likely your story. For, according to statistics gathered by the National Institute of Mental Health, 18.1% of us will suffer from mental illness and four percent will deal with a severe form of the disease. And while people in poverty and the young or old are affected more often, wealth, or race, or age, or political affiliation, or, whatever, won’t protect you because mental illness is an equal opportunity disorder. In fact, according to the World Health Organization, neuropsychiatric disorders are the number one cause of disability in the U.S. beating out both cancer and heart disease.
The bottom line is: mental illness is everywhere and, one way or another, it affects everyone.
Running from Stigma Against Parents
Back then I didn’t know what I know now. So I ran. As those stories began to overwhelm and frighten me, I got up and left that meeting and didn’t return to a support group for eight years.
It was a terrible mistake.
For my journey with my daughter did entail everything I heard about that first day: theft, arrests, multiple hospitalizations, drugs, drama, and enormous pain—pain that I needlessly suffered alone because I succumbed to the stigma and, in my shame, didn’t reach out for help.
Shame Got Me Nowhere
But, shame got me nowhere. I wasn’t a bad parent—I was a concerned, albeit struggling, parent with a severely mentally ill daughter. And she wasn’t a “loser” or a “bad kid,” she was a very ill person in need of all the help I could get her. And that meant pulling my head out of denial and getting to it. It also meant speaking my truth about bipolar disorder to anyone who would listen. If I wouldn’t whisper about cancer or diabetes, why whisper about bipolar? So, with my daughter’s permission, I began to tell our story, warts and all.
Help for Parents of Mentally Ill Kids
Finally, when I didn’t think I could survive the journey alone for another step, I reached out for help—and help was there. In fact, I found a vibrant, passionate, non-judgmental system of support for families living with mental illness that I’d never dreamed possible. And, that has made all the difference for me. It has helped me realize that I am not alone, I did nothing to cause bipolar or any of this, and our road to recovery is supported, brave and, above all, possible.