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So, what do you think about mental illness?

I've been doing some writing on this topic.  I'm preparing to speak at a conference for religious educators on this - specifically, as a mom to a mentally ill child.  It seems that mental illness is one of the few stigmatized things we just don't dare (or want) to discuss in our society.

Come on, you've been at dinner parties or backyard barbecues where someone has brought up the topic of cancer, or a diagnosis of diabetes or heart disease.  But when was the last time you had a discussion with someone about a loved one being diagnosed with bipolar or an anxiety disorder?  We still talk about people being hospitalized for depression in hushed tones.  Why?  Because we still have the impression that mental illness is somehow "controllable" by the individual, and that the mentally ill are crazy, unpredictable people - too abnormal to left alone with children and pets.

Here's what I'd like - as a mom to a mentally ill child:
  • Ask me how she is.  If she had leukemia, you'd surely ask.
  • Ask where she is.  My daughter is sometimes gone from church, our family, etc. for stretches of time for treatment, hospitalization, etc.  She doesn't just disappear and we're not hiding her.
  • If you invite our family, assume she will come.
  • Engage her in conversation.  She's sweet and funny, kind and loving.  You'll enjoy talking to her, and she will enjoy talking to you.  Yes, I know she can look a little off-putting - she likes to pull her hood up over her head.  She does this because she's often extremely uncomfortable in social situations.  She thinks you won't like her, so she puts up a barrier.  You'd talk to that person in the wheelchair, wouldn't you?  Don't let her disability be a barrier to getting to know her.
  • Learn about mental illness.  It's not as scary when you have knowledge.
  • Know that mental illness is just like any other physical illness, except that it is brain-based.  A person cannot "get over it" by a force of will.  It generally takes therapy, which may or may not involve medication, and on-going treatment.  A person cannot wish depression away anymore than a person could wish away cancer, diabetes, or Alzheimer's.
  • My other children do not suffer the same mental illness as their sister, but they often suffer because of it.  They have been stigmatized by others, and embarassed by her behavior.  Take it easy on them.
  • Yes, it is stressful.  Dear Husband and I have been called away from work, lost a lot of money because of her behavior, invested a lot of money in her treatment and dealt with much stressful behavior.  There are no spaghetti benefits at our church, no friends holding fund-raisers and no "Make A Wish" grants for mental illness.  Remember that. 
So, what do you think of mental illness, and more importantly, those who suffer from it?

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