Are We Ready Now?

When are we ready to stop with the snippy 2nd ammendment memes and have a real conversation about these tragic events and the challenges we face as a nation?

My heart goes out to the families of the victims — all of them, including the traumatized children who saw their classmates die, who had to run from a building that should have been a safe haven.

And we owe it to those children to be angry. To face our nation’s problems with violence, guns and a pathetic mental health system with clear eyes.



Thoughts on Our Culture’s Treatment of Suicide and Mental Illness

Sometimes other people say it best. Today, a local politician talks candidly about his experience at a memorial service for a young man who committed suicide. Definitely worth a read. Here’s a small snapshot:

We are still a long way from a fool-proof medical treatment for depression, but we are even farther away from having the social and cultural understanding necessary to maximize the effectiveness of the treatments we have. For all the breakthroughs we’ve made in the field of mental health, too many of us still tend to believe that if a problem is in your head, it isn’t real.

Yet even the best treatment sometimes fails, and you wind up in a room filled with people each remembering the phone call they meant to make, the e-mail they were going to answer or the invitation they kept planning to extend. It’s unrealistic to believe any of that would have changed the outcome, but it is human to think so and may even spur us to be more thoughtful and attentive to others, at least for a time, and that’s something.

But when those left behind assume too great a burden of guilt, it compounds the suffering and distorts the reality of this terrible illness. By thinking we could have somehow deflected the fatal act, we are granting it a degree of consciousness and deliberation at variance with reality and empowering it with the further capacity to unfairly continue inflicting pain and injury on others. After all, no one blames the empty chambers in a pistol for not coming up in a fatal game of Russian Roulette.

Click here for the full story.

Thank You, David Brooks

For looking beyond the political rhetoric and making this point about the tragic violence in Tucson:

If the evidence continues as it has, the obvious questions are these: How can we more aggressively treat mentally ill people who are becoming increasingly disruptive? How can we prevent them from getting guns? Do we need to make involuntary treatment easier for authorities to invoke?

Torrey’s book describes a nation that has been unable to come up with a humane mental health policy — one that protects the ill from their own demons and society from their rare but deadly outbursts.

Read his column in the New York Times.

Is Animal Hoarding a Mental Illness?

We’ve heard the news stories about animal hoarders — people who “collect” animals under the guise of rescuing them until the situation becomes uncontrollable. The photos and stories of starving animals living in their own waste are highlighted in the media across the nation.

The media stories tend to focus on the animals, which they should. These innocent creatures are clearly the victims here. But the news media rarely digs deeper to the real problem behind animal hoarding. And maybe we should be asking, What about the perpetrators?

An enlightening story from the ASPCA talks about the deeper issues involved in animal hoarding cases. It describes the root of the problem as “Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate social issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Victims can include cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. While it’s not clear why people become animal hoarders, current research suggests the cause is often attachment disorder in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, dementia, depression and other mental illness. The hoarder does not intend to inflict harm on animals, and in most cases, the hoarder can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.”

I found this article particularly interesting because I’ve had a lot of experience with animal rescue operations, and the deepest issues involved in the problem are seldom addressed. I do believe, as does the ASPCA that “the solution lies in supplying hoarders with the resources and tools they need to keep them from repeating their destructive patterns.”

To me, that means mental health resources, something that is in short supply already in this country.

If you know or suspect someone you love is an animal hoarder, please check out the ASPCA’s Animal Hoarding page.

Help for Teenagers Affected by Suicide: Break Through the Static

My local paper ran a story about a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teenagers who are affected by suicide. This organization, called Break through the Static, defines its mission as creating “a caring community aimed at helping teenagers survive, heal and grow after losing a loved one to suicide. At Break Through the Static, teenagers will experience a safe and encouraging environment designed to strengthen their emotional and physical health through positive peer and adult relationships, and by joining with other teens to share and cultivate their unique talents and interests.”

Wow, I wish this group was around 20 years ago.

In fact, I find it a little disturbing that it took this long to develop such a group. It shows, yet again, the large hole in support services for people who are directly affected by mental illness.

If you are a teenager who is affected by suicide, or you know one, please check out Break through the Static. What an amazing resource for an under-served group of people. We are not alone.

Coping with the Holiday Blues

The holidays are upon us. I was pleased to find in my research that the rumors of increased suicide attempts during the holiday period has been proven inaccurate. In fact, the opposite seems to be true — with more people reporting improvements in mental health, possibly because we typically interact more with other people during this season than during the rest of the year.

But what if, due to no fault of your own, the holidays reflect more about what you’ve lost than what you have?

That was my feeling about the holiday season for many, many years. Memories of happier times did not comfort me. I went through the motions, but felt like Christmas — the major holiday of my childhood — was simply another day where the thing I wanted most (my mother) was missing.

Not only was the thing I wanted unobtainable, but gifts in general felt like a poor substitute. Carols? Cookies? Reindeer? Nah. Didn’t do a thing for me. I was looking for something that could not be found in a store or under a tree or even in a church.  Like the first part of the song, “Where Are You Christmas?”, I had changed, but the holidays were a chain to my past.

This is my 21st Christmas without my mother. That’s a lot of crappy holidays. Too many. But I’m please to report some improvements over the past few years. The major reason is the birth of my own children, who are enchanted by the magical side of Christmas. They believe in Santa, and I love watching their excitement. It has brought a new joy into the season. Hang around with young children during the holidays. It’s much more fun.

I’ve also focused less on myself and more on others.  Giving to others is one relatively simple way to find the spirit of the holidays when it feels like it’s missing. I make donations during this time of year. They are small, but I make sure they count. I give to people and charities doing work I believe in. I donate time to organizations that make a difference. In helping others, I help myself reconnect with what is truly important in our lives. And in this economy, the need is greater than ever.

I also have given myself permission to give up parts of Christmas that feel more burdersome than celebretory. I made three batches of simple cookies instead of 10 batches of those tasty, but very complicated, recipes handed down by my grandmothers. Our dinner is also simplified — only the dishes we truly enjoy will find it to our table this year. No homemade gifts from me either — great idea, but I don’t enjoy crafting enough to make that my priority. I still do Christmas cards because I enjoy receiving them, but the letter inside is printed from a computer instead of handwritten (my preference).

Another idea that I like is simply skipping the holidays. Leave the decorations in the attic, find someone to pick up your mail, get a cheap flight and hotel on the Internet, and then take off for someplace tropical. If the holidays are painful, I think doing something radically different is an okay way to cope with the situation. I confess that I have not put this option into action, but I reserve the right to in future years.

My own experience has led me to believe that time does help.  Those 20 years of cruddy Christmases are not a life-long sentence. Each year is gets a little easier as I find ways to make the holiday season reflect what I feel is important. It’s a journey, not a destination.

My Struggle with Postpartum Depression

After my son was born, I was deliriously happy for a few weeks. His first night at home, I remember feeling happier than I ever remember being in my life. It was if we had known each other before, and only recently found each other again. He completed us — we were a family at last.

Then I started into a slow decline – so slow that neither my husband nor I realized what was happening in the confusion of caring for an infant. I ended up in the hospital after complications from gallbladder surgery when my son was six months old. He got a very nasty virus from visiting me in the hospital. He was sick for a month, and my decline spiraled out of control, compounded by my own struggles to recover from surgery and too many sleepless nights. The official diagnosis was postpartum depression. All I knew is that the world felt bleak and hopeless. I glimpsed the void that caused my mother to take her own life. For a few nanoseconds, I understood.

My husband made an appointment for me with my doctor, who put me on Zoloft and recommended a therapist. I hated going. And I’m not sure I would have if my husband didn’t insist. But he did, and I went. The Zoloft help stabilize my mood, and the therapist helped me work out some issues that parenthood brought up.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do – I resented the time and the expense. However, with hindsight, I now see that I really needed to address some major issues, mostly around my parents. And it was important that I break the cycle – my mother was also prone to depression as well as bipolar. I was beginning to repeat her patterns, and I wanted to be a different mother to my kids. It’s still a constant battle, but I feel like I’ve made some progress.

I’m off the Zoloft now, but we’re all watching me very carefully, as the stress of parenting two small children could trigger another round. Motherhood, particularly when it involves small children, does not provide many opportunities to care for yourself. Yet as the family member of someone with a serious mental illness, I know how important it is for the ill person to seek care. It was far harder than I originally thought it would be, and I understand at some level why mentally ill people resist their own treatment.

I tell this story because I believe two people were key to ensuring I got the care I needed. The first is my husband, who went so far as to make the initial appointment with my doctor himself and ensure I had babysitters so I could make every appointment with both my doctor and therapist. The second is my ob-gyn, who took action immediately — getting me quickly to the people who could help me. They did the right things.

If you are the depressed person, and you don’t have a partner who is as proactive as my husband is, know that doing the right thing for your health is HARD. You will have to force yourself to make that first phone call. And you’ll have to force yourself to keep the appointment. And you’ll have to resist the excuses to back out or not show up or stop your medication.

But I’m here to tell you that you are worth it. Whether you are the ill person or the family member of someone struggling with mental illness, take that first step. Pick up the phone. PSI Postpartum Depression Helpline: 1.800.944.4PPD

Welcome to Families of the Mentally Ill

We started this site as an Internet resource for the families of people with a mental illness. Our mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the late 1980s at age 45. Armed with only her nursing textbooks and some terms we picked up at the numerous doctors visits, our family tried to navigate the medical care system and my mother’s illness. Sadly, she committed suicide several months later. Michelle was 17. Denise was 14.

While progress has been made over the past 20 years, we feel like our nation is very behind in understanding and treating mental illness. We are not medical doctors, psychologists or social workers. We are just two people who loved someone who had a disease. We dedicate this site in memory of our mother, and we hope to offer a way to support other families who are going through similar ordeals.