Mental Illness is in Every Family

This topic has been on my list of things to write about since 2015, but today is the day I will discuss this serious issue. The issue is mental illness. As much as many people would prefer not to talk about mental illness, it is a pervasive part of almost every family, such that we need to change our attitudes about both the illness and the people it impacts. I know more than most people about mental illness. I am a psychologist, after all. In addition, mental illness is present on both sides of my family, that is, in my mother’s side of the family and my father’s side of the family. I won’t go into personal details, but suffice it to say, I have had a lot of experience with mental illness, including suicide and substance abuse among my family members. David’s family also includes people who suffer from mental illness. Our families, like many others, usually whisper about the family members who suffer from mental illness. Statements are made about “crazy Uncle you know who,” the cousin who ruins all family gatherings with a display of rage caused by bipolar disorder, or the child who “never seemed quite right in the head.” None of these observations are helpful. In fact, many of them are harmful by promoting negative stereotypes of people with mental illness, not to mention they do nothing to help the person in need. I have long believed mental illness should be treated the same way as physical maladies, meaning that, just like when someone has a broken arm, we rush him/her to the emergency room to get help, we should rush the loved one who has a “broken brain” to the nearest treatment facility. Mental illness is a fact of life. Always has been. Always will be. There’s nothing to be ashamed about except our unwillingness to help the person who has a condition which requires our help, due to the fact that someone who suffers from any type of cognitive impairment cannot help himself/herself. Please help those who need your help. Please.

What does it mean to be normal versus mentally ill?  I’m not a psychologist, so I don’t know.  But, as an observer of human behavior, I believe “normal” is a pretty broad description that probably includes many people who function pretty well despite some degree of mental abnormality.  Thus, the question becomes, where is the line where mental illness is obvious and life impairing?  Based on experience, I don’t think most people share an understanding of where that line really is.  Or, at least they don’t want to recognize it enough to address the mental health of someone about whom they care.  The closest member of my family who exhibits enough symptoms that I am comfortable saying she is clearly mentally ill is a first cousin.  She has exhibited these symptoms and behaviors for many years.  She had a relatively successful career until mental illness impeded her ability to function professionally.  As her ability to manage “normally” unraveled, I observed an unwillingness among her family to get help for her.  My aunt, uncle and other cousins apparently preferred to avoid conflict instead of getting help for the one who needed it.  Others tried, to help, going as far as making appointments for her with a doctor, but they expected “Cousin” to take herself to the appointment and you guessed it, that never happened.  Dealing with someone like this is difficult.  I had a telephone conversation with Cousin a few years ago and it shook me – I got off the phone knowing I’d spoken with “crazy.”  (I have tried to involve others in getting professional help for Cousin but the short story is I have no legal standing to do so.)  Admitting something is wrong is step 1.  The steps which follow are difficult. Finding help can be done via internet searches, or perhaps best, by asking a physician for guidance.  If it is bad enough, contact the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255.

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