family,psychology

mental illness has a name

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 It was a chilly Chicago day in 1999, and I was a doctoral student in clinical psychology sitting in my office at my first “real” therapy job. The phone rang and my dad spoke words that shifted the ground beneath my feet forever.

With a shaky voice, my dad told me my brother had been involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital. “I never thought I would have to watch my son be handcuffed and put in a police car,” he told me with barely concealed tears.

I closed my eyes tight and focused on sounding calm and professional. I had just come from my internship rotation at a psychiatric hospital, and so I began spewing out information about the daily structure of inpatient treatment. The words were meant to be reassuring to my dad, but in retrospect I see how I was filling the void of my fear and powerlessness with technical terms and psychological jargon.

As my dad and I talked on the phone, I couldn’t get the image of a hospital patient I had talked to the day before out of my mind. The patient was a man in his 30s who had been repeatedly hospitalized and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. With one hand covering his left eye and an odd, halting cadence to his speech he asked me to retrieve his food tray, “I can’t look at anything to the left,” he insisted. “I can’t look to the left or use my left hand.” The terror on his face was evident as he pleaded with me for help on the seemingly simple task.

And now here I was sitting in my therapy office talking to my dad about my own brother’s schizophrenia. It felt surreal, terrifying, tragic. Like the patient I had encountered the day before, my brother would also be hospitalized repeatedly over the next decade before he stabilized.

I was a therapist trained to help people with mental illness, and yet I could do nothing to help my own brother. Nothing. And so I prayed. I prayed that every therapist and nurse and clergy and doctor he encountered would see his humanity, his need, his vulnerability, his fear. That they would do what I could not, what my parents and siblings could not – that for every word we couldn’t say, for every comfort we couldn’t give, for every answer we didn’t have, that God would use these strangers to be agents of healing in his life.

A few weeks ago Rick Warren preached for the first time since his son’s suicide and spoke out about mental illness, and I felt hopeful. In our culture, mental illness is ridiculed, ostracized, ignored and misunderstood. People jokeabout being crazy, hearing voices, wanting to kill themselves or feeling schizophrenic.

These things are not funny. The inability to differentiate reality from delusion, to experience joy, or to conjure up the will to live or speak or work is, in actuality, the farthest thing from humorous. Every time I hear people make light of mental illness in this way, my stomach ties itself up in knots. The psychologist part of me might speak out, but the sister clams up and goes underground in anger, confusion and sadness.

As I listened to Warren’s words, I felt like my family was seen. Understood. Affirmed. Here was a man who was not hiding his son’s mental illness out of fear of judgment or condemnation. Instead, Warren displayed the power of vulnerability and truth-telling.

Mental illness is not shameful or embarrassing or due to poor parenting. Schizophrenia is something my brother has, not who he is; he has a brain disease that has impacted his quality of life at every turn. Like many other debilitating illnesses, it is not fair and it hurts. But he is not his illness.

Perhaps you or a loved one are suffering from depression or bipolar disorder or OCD or schizophrenia. I hope hearing stories like my family’s or the Warren’s can inspire you to break through the stigma and speak boldly about the real face of mental illness.

And when you get the chance to speak love and compassion into someone’s life, don’t let it slip by. Because each person you meet is a child of God. And not only that, but each broken and precious image-bearer is also someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister. And as a sister, let me say thank you.

Blessings and peace to you, friends. Thank you for listening to my family’s story. If it touched you, please say a prayer for moments of peace for my brother and the many others suffering from schizophrenia and other mental illnesses today. And look for the opportunity to offer humanity and grace to someone else’s sister or brother. As always, please feel free to share this article with anyone who could benefit from its message.  

If you or someone you know is suffering from mental illness, please know there is help and hope.

Find a psychiatrist or therapist by reviewing profiles of clinicians in your local area on Psychology Today here.

If you are a family member of someone suffering from mental illness, I cannot speak highly enough of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). NAMI provides advocacy, education, support and community. It has been life-giving to my parents and countless others. Find more information about NAMI here.

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