About a year ago, as we were in the throes of begging a Dallas Psychiatric Hospital to treat our fifteen-year-old son, a family member made some interesting comments. In a conversation that took place on Facebook, I was accused of spoiling my child, not parenting properly, and, in my attempt to obtain treatment, I was accused of relying on the government to take care of a responsibility that is ultimately my own. The words were harsh, judgmental, and they stung. My feelings were deeply hurt.
I engaged in the conversation to defend myself and to help my family member understand the entire situation. Unfortunately, I was met with more judgment and even greater hostility. In an attempt to salvage our now, deeply fractured, relationship, I left the conversation.
A year has passed since that hurtful conversation took place and I have sincerely tried to move forward in a spirit of love and grace. I believe that my family member simply does not understand.
But, yesterday morning, a whole year later, I woke up to another upsetting comment from my relative. Although, this time the words were not targeted directly at me, the words were just as harsh and judgmental as they were before. The hostile nature of the post and the similarities to last year’s dialogue stirred some deep emotions within me.
I am not sharing this to retaliate against my relative or to hurt him in any way. My relative is a good person with a good family and solid morals and values. I respect my relative and I do not want to be a source of anymore pain.
However, as I have been licking my wounds and processing the situation, a revelation came to me. My relative’s lack of understanding, lack of empathy, lack of compassion, and false perception of my family’s situation represents the way most of our nation views mental illness.
I am blessed to be surrounded by a community of people who are supportive, empathetic, and who have stepped up and stepped in to walk this horrific journey with my family. As a result, I live in a bubble. I am protected and therefore I am sheltered from the harsh critics in our society.
But here’s the thing: The harsh critics exist. And often they exist in our very own families.
Through my tears and in my attempt to understand my relative’s point of view, I found myself filled with a greater desire to bring awareness, provide more education, and move our society forward with greater momentum. I am actually thankful my family member attacked. His words stoked my fire. They were a call to greater action!
His words served as a great reminder: People DO NOT understand.
And how can they?
For all of history, society has done everything in its power to sweep the issue of mental illness under the rug. No one wants to be associated with mental illness. No one wants to admit that mental illness exists. Certainly no one wants to have a mental illness in their family; and what could be worse than being the one who actually has a diagnosis? No one wants to be mentally ill. Nobody wants to be “crazy”.
For centuries we have hidden those who suffer away. We have shunned them, banned them from society, hidden the illness in our homes, and prayed that no one would discover our “dirty little secrets”.
Families continue to hide in guilt and shame. And why wouldn’t we? For a family with mental illness, the world is a cruel place. Parents are accused of poor parenting from school teachers and administrators and we are even criticized by our own families and friends. I remember when our son, Cody, was younger I isolated myself in the house because I could not bear the stares and judgments. In the past year, as the illness has tightened its grip on Cody’s mind, I have seen him deteriorate and suffer from low self worth. No one wants to be “that person” and no one wants to be “that family”
But you know what? My family is “That Family”.
And you know what else? I refuse to walk in shame.
Last year, in an attempt to educate people about mental illness, I wrote a blog and created a daily post on social media called, “Mental Illness 101”. I have not revisited that information in quite a while but perhaps it’s time for a refresher. The facts I will post here are slightly more personal.
- My son has a physical illness that affects his brain. His illness is as real as another person’s heart disease, diabetes, or cancer. His illness is not a result of bad parenting, too many video games, being spoiled, or lack of faith. His illness is biological. It requires medication and intensive treatment. If the illness goes untreated Cody will get sicker, likely end up in jail or on the street, and his life expectancy could decrease by at least 25 years.
- My family is not alone. One in four Americans (approximately 60 milion) suffer from some form of mental illness. 5% of those suffer from severe mental illness such as schizophrenia, severe bi-polar disorder, or severe depression.
- My son suffers from severe bi-polar disorder, one of the most difficult mental illnesses to treat.
- Suicide is the eleventh leading cause of death in the U.S. and the third leading cause of death for people ages 10-24. More than 90% of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental illness.
- 24% of state prisoners and 21% of local jail prisoners suffer from mental illness. 70 % of youth in juvenile justice systems have a diagnosable mental illness.
- Fewer than one third of adults and one half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive medical health services.
- Approximately 26% of homeless adults staying in shelters live with serious mental illness and 46 % suffer from severe mental illness.
- Treatment for mental illness is nearly impossible to obtain. Unlike going to the hospital for any other physical illness, to be admitted, a patient with a brain disorder must meet the criteria of being a “danger to self or others”. By the time the individual is that sick, it is often too late. No other illness is treated this way.
- Our nation currently has a shortage of nearly 100,000 psychiatric hospital beds. This shortage has resulted in increased homelessness, increased incarcerations, and emergency room overflow.
- Why does the government need to step in? Because our current mental health care laws actually prohibit individuals and family members from receiving care.
- Are families looking for a government handout? No. Insurance companies do not cover mental health the same way they cover medical health, (although the two should be integrated into one treatment plan, but that is a topic for another day). Typically insurance companies are only willing to cover up to 30 days of inpatient treatment. For a person with a severe and persistent mental illness, like my son’s, 30 days is the equivalent of putting a band aid on stage IV cancer.
- We are receiving treatment through our school district. Yes, the school district. Not insurance and not any other medical coverage. This is the way our current system is set up. It is the only means to receive quality care. We have fought for this treatment. The cost for intensive residential treatment that our son’s illness requires is in excess of $8,000 per month. That does not include medications. I don’t know of any family who can afford these kinds of medical expenses out of pocket. It is not our desire to receive financial assistance, but under our current system of care, we are left with no other options. We are thankful to be receiving help. There are many families who are not so fortunate.
This is a broad overview of our failed mental health care system and just a few basic facts about mental illness.
Our lack of compassion and treatment for the mentally ill is one of the greatest injustices of this generation.
It is my deepest desire to bring mental illness out of the darkness and into the light. We have got to change the way our society views mental illness and we have got to change the way we treat those who suffer. We must eliminate the myths and focus on the facts.
As I continue to speak out on behalf of my son, our family, and the millions of others who are suffering in silence, I pray that we will reach a place where we can all move forward in a spirit of love and grace. I long for the day when people who suffer from mental illness will be added to church prayer lists instead of being criticized and condemned. I long for the day when social media will be filled with stories of healing and hope instead of another mass shooting. I long for the day when we will be less critical of one another and more understanding, empathetic, and compassionate. All I can think is that Jesus would want us to love one another, not tear each other apart.
Wouldn’t we be better off to try on the other person’s shoes before we offer judgment? Wouldn’t we be smarter to learn the facts before we offer criticism?
As I wrap this up, I pray that you will not post anything harsh or unkind about my relative. I did not write this to invite any more hostility. Instead, I invite you to share anything new that you have learned from this information. (negative and unkind comments will be deleted.)
How has this helped you be more empathetic and more understanding of mental illness?
How can you make a difference to a family who is suffering?
What can you do to bring change?
If you are a family who is suffering, how can this help you educate others? Can you find the courage to share your story?
Please post your POSITIVE comments. I would love to hear from you!
Benjamin Franklin said “There will be no justice until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” It’s time for every person in our nation to be outraged. I will not rest until we are.