Life Stories, Relationships

The Myth That Is Mental Illness.

What do you think of when you hear the word mental illness?  Does it conjure up images of “crazy” people in an institution?  Do you think of violent individuals and assume that they have a mental illness?  Do you think that people that are mentally ill people are just making excuses for their weakness or failure?

The truth is that there are so many misconceptions out there (still today) about what mental illness is.  So let’s define mental illness, what is it?

  • A mental illness is a disease that causes mild to severe disturbances in thought and/or behavior, resulting in an inability to cope with life’s ordinary demands and routines.
  • There are more than 200 classified forms of mental illness. Some of the more common disorders are depression, bipolar disorder, dementia, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders.  Symptoms may include changes in mood, personality, personal habits and/or social withdrawal.
  • Mental health problems may be related to excessive stress due to a particular situation or series of events. As with cancer, diabetes and heart disease, mental illnesses are often physical as well as emotional and psychological. Mental illnesses may be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. With proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from a mental illness or emotional disorder.

Here are 8 common misconceptions regarding mental illness:

  1. Myth: Mental illness is destructive, but thankfully it is still not all that common.  Truth: A recent study by NIMH found that, 18.6 percent of American adults and 20 percent among the adolescent age group, will suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year. 
  2. Myth: The incidence of mental illness has been exaggerated by doctors trolling for patients and pharmaceutical companies looking for easy targets. Truth:If the incidence of mental illness seems extraordinarily high, it is only because people are acknowledging what had previously been kept hidden behind a wall of shame and denial.
  3. Myth: Some of the so-called “mentally ill” are just making excuses for their weakness or failure. These people need to stop whining, get up off the couch and go find a job.  Truth: Mental health disorders don’t discriminate based on age, race, gender, ethnicity, occupation (or lack thereof), religion, social strata, economic class, ethnic background, political party or life philosophy.
  4. Myth: When people are mentally ill, they can’t hold down a job or take care of themselves and their families properly. Truth: the majority of those suffering from mental health disorders are able to meet their work requirements and fulfill their family responsibilities most of the time.
  5. Myth: The mentally ill should be feared because of their propensity for violence.  Truth: Every study carried out on the subject has found that people suffering from mental illness are more likely to become the victims of violence than to be its perpetrators.
  6. Myth: Mental health disorders are biological. That is what the latest science shows.  Truth:  Mental illness has a strong biological/neurological component, but a reductionist equation that reduces it to this status inhibits understanding by ignoring important environmental and psychological factors.
  7. Myth: People can recover from depression and anxiety disorders with drugs alone; in fact this is the only type of treatment that really works for these conditions.  Truth:  But pharmaceuticals work best (when they work, which isn’t always) if used temporarily and in conjunction with psychotherapy, peer support groups and self-help strategies designed to eliminate lifestyle triggers connected to the onset or worsening of the disease.
  8. Myth:  When the mentally ill attempt suicide, it is a cry for help.  Truth:  People suffering from mental health disorders will become suicidal only if their earlier, actual cries for help were not noticed, acknowledged or taken seriously. Failed suicide attempts by the mentally ill are a sign that urgent and immediate intervention is required, but the best course of action is to respond to the initial cries for help at the time they actually occur.

Most people believe that mental disorders are rare and “happen to someone else.”  In fact, mental disorders are common and widespread.  An estimated 54 million Americans suffer from some form of mental disorder in a given year.  One in six Americans experience a mental health problem in any given year.

Yet many people suffer with their symptoms in silence. The stigma that continues to surround mental health problems prevents them from getting the help they need.

There had been a time when I definitely had my own prejudice against people with mental illness.  In part, because as a child growing up, my own mother struggled with her own mental health issues.  Then, I didn’t realize what it was, it was our “normal” with mom.  The highs (laughing, her creative ideas and random singing around the house) and the lows (her rages, anger, alcohol and abuse) were part of how we grew up.  It was normal to help my mom through numerous anxiety attacks.  We would have to assure her that everything was okay, tell her to breathe and relax and get her to the other side of her episode.  All of this made me form my own prejudices and loathing towards what I felt at the time was mom’s weaknesses.  I was the oldest girl and so often, I was put into the position of playing “the mother” to my siblings and I would have to help dad keep the house going.  All of this made me angry toward people like my mother.  I simply didn’t understand then that she was suffering in her own way, to her own demons.

When I was in college for nursing, I was proud to say that I had straight A’s throughout, except for just one class; mental health.  I actually failed the first test.  I had seriously never failed a test in college until that time.  I battled back from that first test (but it was hard to bring up a solid F) and it is the only class in college that I received a ‘B’ in.  I share that with all of you only because you will realize just how poetic that becomes later in my life.  I had such a hard time wrapping my head around mental illness.  I would almost be angry when I would be in class and think to myself that these people just needed to “buck up” and “stop feeling sorry for themselves”.  I looked at mental illness as a form of weakness of the individual (my mother).  It is amazing what you carry with you from childhood without realizing it.  Today, I am ashamed to admit all of that, deeply and truly.

I have always said that God is funny (in a not funny way) in how he teaches his life lessons.  In about 2008, my life started to take a turn that I didn’t recognize at the time.  It is very insidious, mental illness.  It wasn’t until 2010 that mental illness slapped me fully in the face in a way that would alter the rest of my life.  But this is less about me, and more about my oldest son.  There are no words to describe the sheer horror that I remember feeling at what I feared was happening.  My handsome, charismatic and handsome son became someone I could barely recognize.  To go into the specifics is difficult because it is just too complicated.  It was and forever will be the worst time in my life, as I realized that my son had schizophrenia. (It is not the label of schizophrenia that terrified me but instead the knowledge that this would be a lifelong battle for my son.) I couldn’t say the word out loud.  I could only think it in my head and I remember praying (on my knees at the side of my bed) for any other condition but that one as a reason for my son’s behavior.  It was only after my youngest son said the words, “Mom, he has schizophrenia.” that I had to start to believe it for myself (acceptance comes later, or maybe it never truly comes).

I felt that this was my ultimate life lesson (via God’s not great humor).  The one thing I struggled with most, mental illness now hit me more personally than it ever had before.

Schizophrenia is a serious mental disorder that is characterized by at least 2 of the following symptoms, for at least one month:

  • Delusions
  • Hallucinations
  • Disorganized speech (e.g., frequent derailment or incoherence)
  • Grossly disorganized or catatonic behavior
  • A set of three negative symptoms (a “flattening” of one’s emotions, alogia, avolition)

My son at one point had all of the above symptoms.

The peak age at onset for the first psychotic episode is early- to mid-20s for males and late 20s for females. My son was 20 when he had his first psychotic episode (he already had the prodromal symptoms for a couple of years preceding), characterized by milder forms of hallucinations or delusions. For example, individuals may express a variety of unusual or odd beliefs (my son thought he was the messiah); they may have unusual perceptual experiences (my son thought he had telepathy abilities); his speech was vague and manic.  The manic episodes would last for days, with little to no sleep which only heightened his symptoms further.

To add insult to injury, finding help was nearly impossible.  To give specifics again is difficult because it entails so much but it was hard to get anyone to listen to us.  We knew that there was a problem (a larger than life problem) but the help did not exist, at least not where you would initially look (with your own doctor and medical institution).  We even had to call the police a few times to find him because we feared for his safety (not the safety of others, another common misconception).  It was during this time that I thought I would lose my own mind with worry.  I expected the police to show up at my door with devastating news about my son.  I prayed for something to show us the way to help for my son.

Finally (after months of chaos, despair and confusion), my husband got in touch with our local NAMI organization, who directed us to a local crisis center, a ‘Rapid Access Clinic’ in our county, for mental health.  It was the first steps to help.  And the first steps to finding some stability for our son.

Now almost 10 years later, I would like to say that everything is always smooth but we have our rough times, but we still have more good times with our son.

He lives with us and probably always will.  (I prefer this to on his own or in an independent living structure, as here he is always surrounded by the people that know him best.)  He also has daily interaction with the people that he trusts the most.  He has worked at times, but that has always been a struggle for him.  Recently, he had been doing so well that we even trialed him off his medication for a while (he wanted that).  That ended with some manic symptoms, his inability to follow instruction, delayed conversation and some minimal psychotic symptoms (laughing and talking to himself)So, we restarted his medication.  There is a component to this, where I have to accept that it is what it is, he has schizophrenia.  In truth, there is a part of me that is always hoping it would just “go away”, but I realize more and more that it isn’t possible.   As a family unit, we have learned and continue to learn new ways to live healthy and happy with this situation.   There are things that do help, such as; eating clean, cutting out stimulants (bad energy drinks, too much coffee), getting good rest.  We work to control the things we can and pray for the things that are out of our control.

We are fortunate, in that Bruce and I are able, and have prepared financially for our son’s future.  Other people are not as lucky.  There are resources available, in most areas, to help people with mental illness.  A great place to begin to find help is to contact your local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  You can also try your local hospitals or community mental health agency.

I found that it became normal for our family dynamic to change, continually really, after our son was diagnosed with schizophrenia. It takes some time to accept the (new) changes and establish a new routine but change is good, right??.

It helps to remember that people with serious mental illnesses can live rich, fulfilling lives.  I believe that my son’s life is as abundant as it can be — and so are our own lives.  And so can yours.

So many times, I am told by my friends and people that know my story that “my son is so lucky to have me” but really, I am the one that is lucky to have him.  He teaches me more about life than any other person or situation has, even more then my life growing up.  I am humbled daily by our situation.  I am humbled daily by our son.  I always say that he is the happiest schizophrenic person I know (and I mean that in the very best of ways).  He just “keeps on, keeping on”.  And I am thankful for that.

Life is what you make it.  It truly is good or bad based on our perceptions.  I choose to believe that we are lucky.  My son is safe and he is (mostly) open to our help.  We are blessed in our own way.



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