Like many others, I have been touched by family members who are mentally ill. My father was depressed for much of his life, and at one point was suicidal. I recall him asking me to read a letter that he wrote, saying he would be at peace after he died and that his family should not grieve for him. I remember looking at him, at age 10, and saying, “But Daddy, you aren’t going to die.” After sharing this letter with his other children, he apparently changed his mind. It was only years later that I understood what he was trying to do. Read more about depression here.
My brother has been mentally ill most of his life. He had a brief manic episode after he got into his twenties, and assaulted the wife of a friend before he was hospitalized. He was arrested and placed on a mental health unit of a hospital. I remember going to see him, and feeling the tension crackling in the air as agitated patients roamed the hallways. My brother has remained stable on medications. Recently fired from his job; his financial welfare is of great concern.
Several years ago I took NAMI’s (National Alliance on Mental Illness) Family-to-Family course, and it made a huge difference in my understanding of my brother and the beliefs I had about mental illness. This free 12 week course was developed by Dr. Joyce Burland, and is a lifesaver for many people across the country. A recent issue of NAMI Advocate highlights some points that I think are important to remember. These are from an interview with Joyce Burland, a woman who founded the NAMI Family-to-Family course. (1)
• It is common for families to search for any excuse other than mental illness to explain a family member’s behavior.
• It is traumatic for families to sense that the person they love has departed and you are all just lost.
• Families think they can “fix” another family member’s mental illness. Not so.
• There are no easy answers for mental illness. If there were, we wouldn’t be stuck in this problem.
• Psychiatry is way behind in terms of research and treatment compared to other branches of medicine.
• The road to failure is to believe that your mentally ill loved onewould get better if she just worked harder.
• Mental illness is not a character defect. No one asked to get mental illness. Those affected are not weak, lazy, or coasting on the freedom from responsibility that illness sometimes brings.
• There is a huge amount of information that is generally unknown to those outside of this experience, about the things that have been found to help us as family members.
• People are quick to express sympathy and compassion for other illnesses because we do not judge people with cancer and heart disease like we judge people with mental illness.
• The stigma of mental illness causes isolation.
Read the full interview at www.nami.org/burland.
A study of 318 people who completed a Family-to-Family course showed:
• Significantly greater overall empowerment as well as empowerment within their family, the service system, and their community
• Greater knowledge of mental illness
• A higher rating of coping skills
• Lower ratings of anxiety related to being able to control conditions, and
• Higher reported levels of problem solving skills related to family functioning.
• At a six month follow up, the participants reported indicated that all these effects were still in place. (2)
One of the hardest phone calls I ever made was to call a local NAMI chapter when I was worried about a family member’s behavior. It was one of the best calls I ever made. It connected me to a network of support I never dreamed existed, got me into a Family-to Family course, and gave me great hope. If you are worried about someone who you think might be ill, I urge you to call NAMI. Get the local chapter number from their website at www.nami.org.
Pat Iyer is president of Avoid Medical Errors.
(1) Reyers, C. “NAMI Spotlight: Joyce Burland, Founder of NAMI’s Family-to-Family Education Program and Mental Health Leader”, NAMI Advocate, Spring 2011
(2) Brister, Teri, “Family to Family: Now and Evidence-Based Practice, NAMI Advocate, Spring 2011