Guest opinion: Mental illness strains families
Our eyes have not stayed dry for long as we have watched the awful events surrounding the carnage in Newtown, Conn. How could anyone be so “evil” as to coldly gun down his mother, children, and adults trying to protect the children? The act has “evil” written all over it. However, there are many of us who see the picture with a wider perspective.
I am a mother of two sons with mental illness. I have dealt with six close relatives and several friends who have been afflicted with moderate to severe mental illness. I am torn apart emotionally and cognitively with the thought of having children and adults gunned down senselessly. I am also torn apart by the reality of what the families of mentally ill loved ones go through. Our family has walked in those footsteps.
Mentally ill people are born as beautiful and precious as all other children. Their parents, if able, love, nurture and protect them in every way possible. Almost always they are noticeably bright and creative. At some point some worrisome behaviors begin to appear. Parents and others have concerns and think of all possible reasons for the behaviors, least of all wanting to consider mental illness. Denial is a huge factor, as well as stigma and shame. Finally, the one or ones who have stuck by the ill person seek help. By this time, the whole family system is hurting, and many marriages start to crack.
Herein begins the most frustrating part of the journey. The caring person who seeks help usually feels quite alone, at least for a while. Then there is the confidentiality issue – a horrible hurdle. By the time the ill person is 21 years of age, the parents may be treated as if they are nobodies – this is the way we perceived we were treated by some of the professionals to whom we first turned.
Eventually there will be attempts at calling mental health professionals to come evaluate the ill person. The person must meet at least one of three criteria to be involuntarily hospitalized: plans to take his own life; plans to take other lives; unable to care for self minimally. Remember, these ill people are usually very intelligent and can present well when threatened. After the evaluation is complete, and if the person is deemed not at risk, his anger frequently turns on whoever he knows reported him.
If the ill person finally gets far enough to receive a diagnosis and medication, the journey of terror is far from over for him and those surrounding him. Many ill people choose not to comply with meds and necessary lifestyle changes. Alcohol and drugs often are in the picture. Psychotic episodes may be part of the illness, and there is no way to reason with what the ill person now perceives to be absolute truth. Frustration, blame, terror, hopelessness, confusion and love are mixed up in one big nightmare for the ill person and those who care.
I do not have solutions, but I do have a heart and voice to share this journey that thousands of us are either on presently, have been on, or very soon will be on. What has come clear to me is that every single one of us is not much more than a hair’s breadth away from having mental illness ourselves. Mental illness is brain chemistry dysfunction, in simple terms, and there are multitudes of ways our brain chemistry can be thrown into dysfunction. People with brain chemistry issues are not idiots. The behaviors may seem crazy to those whose brain chemistry is functioning within the normal range, and the behaviors do have the potential to escalate to horrible violence, to evil acts. The ill person and those surrounding him live in terror of such acts. The pain for all involved is awful beyond description.
I cannot reason why Adam Lanza’s mother had all those guns in her possession. My assumption about her is that she was a mom – just as I am – who was trying in every way possible to make life work for her son. I know many other moms who are presently doing the same. We hope that somehow we will find a way to keep our mentally ill loved one safe from himself, and all innocents safe from him.
Please choose to embrace with love, care, and kind words of truth all those you know who are going through this journey.
Sharon C. Clegg is a retired educator who graduated from Whitworth University.