Families “lost” in the trauma of mental illness

From an article about Britney Spears in USA Today:

 The National Alliance estimates about one in 17 Americans suffers from a serious mental illness, and mental illness affects one in five families. But as common as it is, families often are in the dark because mental illness is not on their radar the way cancer or heart problems are, Burland says.

Often, they don’t even know the symptoms.

That’s what happened to Sarah O’Brien, 30, of Takoma Park, Md., who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago after an incident in which she lost touch with reality. But she looks back and realizes she was exhibiting less obvious symptoms — from obsessively picking at her face to taking drugs — years before that.

Yet not even she recognized her own symptoms.

“I blamed everything on my parents or thinking I was at a horrible school,” says O’Brien, who now works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help others with mental problems. “I was always blaming stuff on something outside myself.”

No one else recognized it “because mental illness was not on someone’s radar screen — and because there was so much stigma. To people looking in, I was probably selfish, reckless and moody. The reality was that I was suffering inside. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”

Once a person or one’s family recognizes a potential problem, getting help is the next step. And it’s often a difficult one.

Often the person suffering from the mental illness does not understand that she or he is sick, says Ira D. Glick, a physician and psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.

“If you go break your leg and run into the doctor, the doctor will put a cast on it and give you medicine for it,” Glick says. “You say, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’

“In our field, when somebody has bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder or depression or schizophrenia, what do they say? What do most people say?

‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need this treatment.’ “

That is why it is so important to have family involvement, Glick says. “We see the family as a partner in the treatment team. It’s the patient, family and doctor all working together to make a diagnosis, set goals and carry out treatment.”

But because it is so difficult under most state laws to have a person hospitalized, families often have to wait until there is a crisis, Burland says.

“You must wait until they meet the criteria for hospitalization … in most states they have to become so gravely disabled that their life is in danger,” she says. “And then you have to call the police or you have to call the crisis team at the hospital to come into your house and take your family member to the hospital. And I want to tell you that it’s one of the most traumatic events that will ever happen to you.”

The ordeal is compounded because of the stigma associated with mental illness, Burland says.

“Families say this is the only illness in the world where you don’t get a covered dish. People don’t call, don’t inquire. The cultural understanding of mental illness is either that it’s their fault for getting ill, or it’s the fault of their family.”

Families often “beat themselves up horribly,” says Judith Orloff, author of Positive Energy and a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles. “They come to blame themselves. They think it’s their fault that this person is mentally ill.”

That is why it is so important to have compassion for them.

“Try to stay away from judging so harshly,” Orloff says. “Send any positive energy or thoughts.”

For more information, go to www.nami.org.

9 Comments on “Families “lost” in the trauma of mental illness

  1. The difficult thing about mental illness is that it so closely mirrors the issues many of us have anyway… denial of our faults, our hurts and deceptions.

  2. Yes, that is true L.L. The other difficulty is in figuring out where the line is between enabling and expecting too much.

    I think this article fails in that it addresses only one factor, biology. I’m reading J.P. Moreland’s new book, Kingdom Triangle, and he mentions that in one generation—the boomer generation— Americans experienced a ten-fold increase in depression.

    He writes:

    “For the first time in history a culture—ours—is filled with what psychologists refer to as the “empty self.” The empty self (also called “the false self”) is so widespread in Western culture that it is sometimes referred to as a cultural plague. According to psychologist Philip Cushman,

    ‘the empty self is filled up with consumer goods, calories, experiences, politicians, romantic partners, and empathetic therapists…. [The empty self] experiences a significant absence of community, tradition, and shared meaning … a lack of personal conviction and worth, and it embodies the absences as a chronic, undifferentiated emotional hunger.’ ”

    I think we see this with Britney Spears, not that I want to diagnose her. But, I think that as a culture we share responsibility for her demise. We consumed her as a product and she became addicted to fame to the degree that she allowed a paparazzi to literally controll her life.

  3. I should note that in the introduction to his book, Moreland states that he has been in therapy for the past three years, so he is in no measure denouncing therapy.

  4. Thanks for this. A relative has bipolar, and sometimes is just so hard watching the fall out on the family. It’s very difficult to be compassionate and yet not enabling.


  5. Bi-polar is very challenging. I have dealt with its challenges on a number of occasions, though not within my extended family.

    I talked a pregnant woman off a third story window ledge on a missions trip once, without letting on that that was what I was doing because she would have accused me of being out to get her in some way. She was deep in a paranoid manic episode. Our team had to eventually call her husband to fly to a foreign country to get her and take her home.

    She had stopped taking her meds right before the trip without consulting her doctor because she had just found out she was pregnant. It was awful for her and for the rest of us.

  6. Thank you Susan, and welcome. I will check them out.

  7. Oh the stigma of a mental illness! Having dealt with a loved ones biplolar disorder-it is one of THE most misunderstood of the mental illnesses. There is NO simple cure, no quick fix and the current meds or methods of recovery are in the infancy stages.

    ‘Trauma’ is a very light way of putting it, in regards to its affect on an entire family.

    But, just as Britney Spears has seeming done a ‘turn around’ in her life, there is always hope for those affected. But hope usually comes after a long spiralling descent into awfullness. Indescribable awfullness.

    If you havent ‘walked a mile in my shoes; then you cant even explain or describe it. Not even close.