"To say that I have a strong family history of mental illness might be an understatement. I have, unfortunately, lost three family members to suicide and have had a number of others live with the fallout of mental illness.
My paternal grandmother, Elizabeth, lived with some form of mental illness during her lifetime. There were no effective treatments or medications in those days. She refused to be admitted to the state hospital, which would have been the only place she could go for treatment, as she feared that she would be locked up and never released.
Despite her family’s efforts and support, she lost her life to suicide many years before I was born. I mourn for my father’s family’s grief and for the loss of a relationship with my grandmother.
My mother, Betsy, told me that she probably had dealt with depression from a young age, but her more severe episodes of depression had their genesis in my brother Paul’s (who died in 2004 at age 46 from an accident related to symptoms of his mental illness) diagnosis of schizophrenia during his teenage years in the 1970’s. This was particularly difficult and stressful for my parents and family, although my parents did all they could to help get Paul the best care they could in a frustrating and confusing maze of resources.
My mother had many bouts of depression over the years, including being hospitalized a number of times and undergoing ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) in 1992, which brought her relief when medications could not. The depression became severe enough that she made a suicide attempt--from which she recovered--in 1988.
Throughout the years, though, Mom’s true spirit of--as a pastor at her funeral described--'a gentle, generous soul' shone through. Loving and creative, she fought the good fight against mental illness during her lifetime. After a month-long hospitalization to help stabilize her depression after a change in medication, for which she said she regretted requesting from her psychiatrist, she had seemingly been doing well in a day treatment program, when we suddenly lost her to suicide in 2002 at age 68.
What a devastating loss it was to our family.
My brother, Mark, also had some episodes of depression during his early adult years, but functioned very well until his late 40’s, when mental illness and addiction got a firm grip on him. He even operated his own successful business over the years. Seemingly out of the blue--although I wonder how long he had been suffering--we were notified that he had gone to the emergency room three times within 24 hours, complaining of what he thought was a heart attack, but which the doctors felt he needed to be evaluated for mental health concerns.
Finally, after speaking with a crisis care worker, we were able to have him hospitalized and evaluated. At this time, it became apparent that he had been self-medicating with alcohol. Meanwhile his mental illness manifested itself as depression with psychotic features. He undertook his treatment with renewed strength, and we saw a lot of positive changes in his life.
However, within about two years, he had to be hospitalized again after completing an outpatient treatment program. Again, it resurfaced as a depressive episode with psychosis.
I don’t think he bounced back as easily with this second hospitalization. I think he always had a difficult time accepting that he lived with mental illness and alcoholism. Despite the support of myself and my other brother, Tom, Mark succumbed to mental illness when he died as a result of suicide at age 51 in 2011. He passed just five days after I had visited him at his home in Maryland.
He, too, had fought the good fight, and Tom and I experienced that devastating sense of loss again.
Have I been affected by the stigma that mental illness carries with it? Yes, but much more so when I was young and my brother Paul was ill (and let me be clear: this was in no way Paul’s fault). There were no support groups or anyone I could talk with besides my parents and brothers. Those were the days when, as an adolescent, I just hoped no one would notice, but it was difficult to do so when we lived in small-town Pennsylvania. The straw that broke the camel’s back was when rumors circulated around town that since my brother was mentally ill, our whole family must have also been 'crazy.' After a while, we moved away from that town.
Eventually I found support as an adult with the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), after my own battle with depression and anxiety, from which, like my mother, I had also been running. I have been blessed in that I have always found unconditional support with these battles within my family, my circle of friends, and everyone at NAMI.
The stigma that surrounds mental illness remains a bone of contention with me. Why should it be, in this day and age, that biological brain disorders are still some of the last taboos in our society? Why should it be, when my family has lost so many to mental illness, that many people still keep the whole subject 'hush, hush?' If it were a just society, then mental illness would take its rightful place in the list of health concerns that we are addressing adequately.
And no one would have to lose his or her life as a result of the disparity of treatments and services available to those who battle mental illness on a daily basis."