Mental illness in the family: Taking a toll

In just two more days our Nation will be celebrating our 241st birthday…the day we declared our Independence from Great Britain.

It will be a date, as it has always been, a great day of celebration for all of us; a day to be with family at parades and other events; that barbecue…eating those hamburgers and hot dogs, Boston baked beans, and apple pie…or whatever you have on the menu for that day…but most of all, it will mean a day with family in remembrance of all those brave founding fathers and other great souls who fought and died to insure our Independence.

But the 4th of July, just as with other holidays, for some families and other care-takers it will be just another day of suffering with a loved one with mental illness and the affect that has on their lives.

Most Americans have experienced caring for a person with mental illness, as in fact 1 in every 25 Americans have a serious mental illness, some 61.5 million individuals. That means that there are literally millions of persons with mental illness affecting millions more…family, friends, co-workers, and others.

Families and other care-takers are most affected….they experience the struggle from day to day, and give much of their lives in this undertaking.

We most assuredly have a profound sense of compassion and empathy for the person with mental illness, as their disease and its attributes are most debilitating for the person. However, do you want to know what it is like for the family who suffers equally with the person with the condition?

To give you, the reader who is unaware of what it is like, let me offer the following case which is so very typical of those I have worked with in my counseling career; Jimmy and his family.

The family of Jimmy first noticed his symptoms of mental illness when he was a young child; most specifically as a pre-teen, attributing his behavior as “behavioral problems.” As a “middle child,” having a brother whom was one year older than himself, and a sister one year younger, he “perceived” that they received more attention than himself…which was hardly the case as his parents gave him and his siblings equal love and care.

He began breaking his sibling’s toys, starting fights with them, and generally acting in an anti-social manner. He did not care to take part in family activities, yet he did become involved in other activities, such as the Cub Scouts. He was an average student, learning at a rate that was below his intellectual level to do so.

By age 13 Jimmy’s altered mental state became much more noticeable to his parents, particularly with his disturbed thoughts and his acting out; becoming so profound which led to his first hospitalization in a mental health facility. He was first diagnosed with Childhood Schizophrenia, Paranoid Type.

Continuing on with his life, and having been placed in mental health facilities by his parents out of unconditional love and care for their child; on no less than 8 occasions; he continued to be a person with behavioral problems; which led to a diagnosis of Mixed Personality Disorder along with his Schizophrenia. He also began to abuse alcohol and other substances at an early age, which of course only exacerbated his condition.

As an adult, and going out on his own to live in other areas, he was often frightened by his paranoid delusions and hallucinations; and of being by himself, and was drawn back to his parents out of dependency on them. His parents spent many hundreds of thousands of dollars on his treatment episodes and his general living care over the years, and the time and effort they have spent on him has become immeasurable.

He was alienated by his siblings and other family members due to his history. Although he lives today close to his parents, and his illness is stabilized with his medications, he is still very much dependent on them for much of his care. His parents are still struggling with him…they are “paying the toll.”

Jimmy’s family is but a representation of the millions of family members in our society whom struggle day to day with a family member with mental illness. They constantly deal with the stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination which lead to the community-wide problem of stigma which is based on — a lack of knowledge and misinformation about the brain disorders we call mental illness…a lack of positive personal interaction and contact with people and families dealing with mental illness.

Almost 40 percent of Americans with a mental illness do not seek, nor do their families seek, the medical or psychological support needed; many because they are embarrassed or afraid of being ostracized in school; and even by family, friends and the religious community.

When compared with all other diseases, including cancer and heart disease, mental illness ranks 1st in causing disability in the United States. While most individuals openly talk about cancer or asthma or even substance abuse without worry of recrimination, the same is not true of those with a mental illness diagnosis.

Having a background in the Sociological and psychological sciences, I am often drawn back to a quote that I read about many years ago by Margaret Mead, an infamous Anthropologist: “If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.”

To quote from the organization called Minds Interrupted, “Recognizing the value of each person’s unique gift is at the heart of the matter…once you hear someone’s story it is difficult to distance yourself from their humanity.”

If you or a loved one is experiencing the struggle with mental illness, I urge you to reach out for support. Reach out to your physician, the local mental health clinic, other professionals engaged in mental health treatment; or the numerous support groups in our communities.

I hope that you all enjoy a most wonderful day of celebration of our Nations Birthday this week, and until next time, Stay Healthy my Friends!