Mental Health, Uncategorized

Starting the Conversation

Regardless of what church you attend, it is likely you’ll be led by the pastor in prayer on the behalf of and in support of other members of your congregation, community, country, or even someplace else in the world.

The pastor might say something like, “Now, let us come together in prayer for Jim who’s in the hospital recovering from back surgery, and Barbara who was recently diagnosed with cancer.”  Have you ever heard a Pastor say, “Please join me in praying for Joe as he struggles with severe depression”?  I haven’t.  I’ve never heard a Pastor say anything remotely close to that in a church service because Joe doesn’t want anyone to know he suffers from depression. He’s afraid if they know he has depression, they might look at him differently.  Some people will even try to avoid him.

My son, Aaron, first became ill with a mental illness when he was a freshman in high school, many of his teachers came right out and told us they couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just suck it up and manage his behavior.  He needs to be more attentive in class.  He needs to focus on his schoolwork.  It’s his own fault he’s having so much difficulty. That was more than 23 years ago, but sadly I’m not sure much has changed since then.  People are still reluctant to disclose to others when they have a mental illness because there are so many stereotypes and prejudices against people with mental illness.

The only way we can affect change around mental illness is to start a conversation about it.  According to the American Psychiatric Association, one way we can positively influence reducing the stigma associated with mental illness is to speak out and share our personal stories.  My son, Aaron, can no longer effectively share his story.  His mind and body have been severely disabled due to his mental illness.  Once an avid personal journalist and artist, he can no longer pick up a pencil and write down his thoughts or as easily draw a picture.  With his permission, I am speaking out on his behalf and sharing his and my personal stories about mental illness.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health nearly 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. experience mental illness in a given year, and that number is higher for adolescents.  With so many people affected by mental illness, why are we so reluctant to talk about it?  When Aaron first became ill with schizophrenia, my husband and I did a lot of research on mental illness.  Mental illness is due to a chemical imbalance in the most complex part of the human body, the brain.  The specific chemicals in the brain that are out of balance, known as “neurotransmitters”, are dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate.   Very few people are afraid to disclose to others when they’re having a problem with their liver or gall bladder, or other more minor organs in the human body, but when the most complex part of their body, their brain, is failing they’re afraid to talk about it with people. This must change.

Interestingly, when I disclose that I have a son who suffers from schizophrenia to a co-worker or acquaintance, it is not uncommon for them to tell me about their son who has bipolar disease or even that they themselves suffer from depression.  It takes only a few simple words to get the conversation started and the impact can be quite beneficial.  These conversations have a ripple effect, because the more we talk about mental health with other people, the less scary and worrisome it will be.

Over time through these conversations, the stigma associated with mental illness will be reduced.  More importantly, however, the ripple effect can reach beyond a reduction in the stigma.  Increased awareness and understanding of mental illness can fuel change in crisis management, care facilities, and medical research.  That is my prayer so that Aaron and others impacted by mental illness can have a better quality of life and be healthy, productive members of our communities.

Mental Health

Happy Holidays?

“Christmas time is here

Happiness and cheer

Fun for all that children call

Their favorite time of year”

A Charlie Brown Christmas is my favorite Christmas movie. The music of Vince Guaraldi is one of the reasons why I like the movie so much. Unfortunately, “Christmas time” and the Holiday Season, in general, are not “Fun for all”.  For people and families impacted by mental illness, the holidays can be more stressful than they are for the mentally healthy.  Often time’s anxiety is created because you don’t know how your mentally ill child or family member will react to the commotion and excitement.  Routines will be disrupted, which can be a trigger for decompensation or a decline in a person’s mental health.

I can’t deny that while I’m a mainly optimistic and cup-half-full type of person, my anxiety level is slightly elevated.  Our son, Aaron, developed schizophrenia in 1999 when he was 15.  Over the past 23 years since Aaron became ill, we have had several difficult holiday seasons. 

Christmas 2002 was one of the tougher Christmases.  Every mother’s greatest joy on Christmas is to have all her children with her.  I don’t need or want any gifts really.  I just want to be surrounded by the people I love most, my husband and children.  That’s what made Christmas 2002 so hard.   Aaron was missing.

From the time Aaron was 18 to the time he was 21, he spent a great deal of time institutionalized at Winnebago Mental Health Institute in Wisconsin.  This is far from typical, but the psychiatrists at the public mental health facility in our community did not want to treat Aaron.  He is med-resistant.  While most people with schizophrenia can lead fairly normal lives with the right therapy and medications, Aaron struggles despite taking a lot of drugs.  He is frequently delusional and psychotic, and when he’s not doing well, he requires a lot of one on one attention to keep him safe.  Aaron is prone to self-harm when he’s in a delusional state.  The psychiatrists in our community did not want to deal with such a sick person, so they sent him to Winnebago.

Believing that the more time Aaron spent with his family, the healthier he would be, we would drive one and a half hours to Winnebago every Friday to pick Aaron up and drive one and half hours back to Winnebago every Sunday to return Aaron.  This routine was dependent on getting clearance from the doctors and staff at Winnebago, however.  If Aaron was having a bad week, they would refuse a home pass.  Unfortunately on December 23, 2002, when we called Winnebago Mental Health Institute to make arrangements to pick Aaron up on Christmas Eve day, we were told he wouldn’t be able to leave the hospital as planned.  His behavior was too irrational.  The doctor didn’t feel comfortable giving him a pass.  In private, the tears flowed, but I remained stoic in the company of our daughters.  I didn’t want to contribute anything but joyfulness to their Christmas.

My husband, Mark, and I couldn’t bear the thought of Aaron, just 18 years old, spending Christmas alone at Winnebago.  It made our hearts ache with sadness.  To ease our grief, we decided to make the three-hour roundtrip drive to Winnebago on Christmas Eve morning to wish him a Merry Christmas in person.  We assured our daughters that we would be back in time to get them to church for the Christmas Eve program.

As we drove, I prayed for God to give me the strength to be cheerful for Aaron and to focus on His love in the gift of His son, Jesus.  My prayers were answered.  I was able to sit with Aaron for a couple of hours and read the Christmas story to him that he had so often recited as a child on Christmas Eve in front of the church.  My visit with Aaron eased my aching heart enough to enable me to focus solely on our daughters that evening and on Christmas Day.

The mental health decline Aaron experiences during the holiday season is not uncommon.  Several years ago, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) conducted a survey where 64% of people with mental illness reported the holidays made their conditions worse.  Having this insight in advance of the holidays and knowing the symptoms to watch for can help mitigate the difficulties a mental health decline can create.   I concur completely with one of the respondents to the NAMI survey.  They advise keeping expectations low and letting your family know in advance of your limits.

I don’t know exactly how Christmas 2022 will turn out yet.  We have learned a lot over the years on how best to help Aaron remain mentally stable.   I remain hopeful that if we can keep disruptions to Aaron’s routine to a minimum, he, and then the rest of the family as well, will have a happier Christmas.  That is the gift I hope for more than anything else.

Mental Health

The Power of Community

Community as defined in the Oxford dictionary is “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” 

There isn’t enough emphasis placed on the value communities provide.  We’re all part of many communities.  Some of them are informal, so informal that we don’t even give them a second thought, like the random people my son plays video games with while online.  Other communities are more formal and well-defined, like the churches we belong to or the places we work.  We don’t even think about these communities very often, but when we’re in need, it’s often the people within these communities that help and support us and lift us up.  I’ve experienced the value communities bring time and again throughout my lifetime, especially when I’m going through a personal crisis.

My hope by starting this blog is that a new community will be created, and like most communities, its members will be there to help and support one another through sharing ideas, experiences, resources, etc.  Specifically, I am very passionate about sharing my thoughts, articles, and videos on issues that impact people touched by mental illness.

My husband and I were thrown, maybe even catapulted, into the middle of mental health concerns about 23 years ago when our oldest son, Aaron, became very ill with a mental illness.  Over time we’ve learned a lot about mental health and the impact a mental illness can have on an individual and their family.  I hope to share some of what we’ve learned through personal experience and ideas on how we can minimize the stigma associated with mental illness. Over the years, we’ve seen changes for the better for people and families with mental illness, but the changes have been small and a long time coming.  There is so much more we need to do so that people suffering from mental illness can get the care and support they need.