Question: If there was one thing you could tell people about your experience with mental illness, either in a family member, friend, or yourself, what would it be?
I have been thinking about this question a lot, especially since for so many years I kept silent for fear of being stigmatized and judged. My experience with mental illness is far-reaching, spanning three generations of my family, and also from connecting with many people who have had mental illness over the years.
Based on my experiences, I would like to answer the question from three different perspectives:
1) As the daughter of a mom who had paranoid schizophrenia, except for a few close friends, I quickly learned it was better not to share this information with people because of their response. The most frequent response was: “Are you going to get it?”
When I told people my mom passed away from cancer, nobody ever asked me that question.
So the first thing I would like to tell people is this: When I talk about my mom’s mental illness, please respond with the same compassion and respect that you would when I talk about her having cancer.
2) I had an eating disorder, anxiety, and depression. I have many close friends who know this about me, and whenever I have told people I find that many of them open up about their own personal experiences. Still, there are those who are not quite so sensitive.
So I would like to make a request. Stop perpetuating the problem by saying, “I wish I had an eating disorder, I could stand to lose some weight.” Stop talking about dieting and what people look like all the time, and start focusing on what is inside.
3) It was heartbreaking when my daughter developed an eating disorder and had a couple of episodes of major depression that landed her in the hospital. On one of those occasions I took a leave from work to be with her for 7 weeks. My good friends at work knew about it and were extremely supportive and caring, and that meant the world to me. However, in an effort to protect my daughter’s privacy, many other people didn’t know what was going on. In retrospect, I wish I had been more open with everyone. It was hard coming back as if nothing had happened. Especially knowing the kind of support people had given to other co-workers when their children had been hospitalized or come down with an illness that wasn’t mental in nature. It was sad that I felt the need to keep her illness a secret, especially when it became life-threatening.
So in the future, I want people to know that when my child has a mental illness, we need the support, cards, flowers, and casseroles the same way that someone whose child has any other illness does.
I do not blame anyone for their innocent responses, as they are rooted in a lack of understanding. And why would people respond in any other way if I, myself, am not comfortable being honest about what is going on. The only way these misconceptions can change is for any and all of us who have had experience with a mental illness to speak up about it, without any shame.
So now it is your turn – what would you like to tell people?