When we told our families that my husband, Josh had been diagnosed with bi-polar, his father’s reaction was to blame his wife. “It’s your fault that he’s mad. Your sister, Violet and your grand-mother were both mental cases. These things were kept from me when we were courting. If I had known that there was madness in your family, I wouldn’t have married you and we wouldn’t be dealing with this mess now.”
Josh’s mother burst into tears. Her daughter, Anna comforted her.
I was livid. I shouted, “It’s a bi-polar disorder, not madness. When Jim admitted that he had a drinking problem, did you call him a lush or make him feel like an utter failure? No, you rallied around him. You got him into AA. You told him that he could beat it just like your Dad did. Why can’t you support Josh? Why can’t you tell him that you love him and that you are here for him?”
His reply was, “I can deal with alcoholism or any other addiction, but I can’t deal with this bi-polar business.”
“He’s your son!” I reminded him. “You should be supporting him not shunning him.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t deal with this. I’m going out.” He turned and walked out the room. That was the last time Josh and I saw him. He hasn’t been over to our place in months and we don’t go over to his house. Josh’s mother and Anna visit us. Every time we saw them, they said to Josh, “Dad will come around. Just give him time.”
Personally, I don’t think he will come around and it’s gotten to the point where I don’t care if I ever see him again. I don’t want him upsetting Josh. It breaks my heart, though. Josh is such a terrific guy. I love him so much. I try to encourage him everyday. I told him that together, we will tear down the weathered wall of stigma. For too long it has prevented those who need help from seeking it because they are afraid of being labelled or of how others would react. I tell him not to believe that his condition is a sign of weakness or that he should be able to control it on his own. We socialize with close friends—friends we can trust and we have the support of our church.
Josh has joined a support group and it has helped him tremendously. At the school where I teach, I have distributed literature to my students urging them to share the information with their friends and families so that people would be educated about the realities of mental illness including how common it is and how important it is to actively speak out against stigma.
I have had students come up to me and tell me that they know someone who has a mental illness. A couple of them told me that they themselves suffered from depression or some other illness but were afraid to say anything because they didn’t want to upset their families or to be rejected by their peers. I encouraged them to talk to someone they could trust and to get the help they needed. It breaks my heart to see how people with mental illness are treated. So many of them delay getting the treatment they need which increases morbidity and mortality.
What’s even worse is when a person with mental illness experiences rejection, avoidance and isolation from family members. Only two members of Josh’s family have anything to do with him. The rest avoid him like the plague. And my family isn’t any better. Only my grandmother is supportive. She adores Josh. “Love is kind. It doesn’t stop being kind because a person has a mental illness. It’s kinder then.”
Josh and I are expecting our first child next year March. As soon as she is old enough to understand, I will educate her so that she will learn to speak out against stigma. The best way to battle ignorance and stigma is through education. I will spend the rest of my life fighting stigma until it is eventually eliminated.
Yesterday I took Building Blocks for Positive Mental Health, a very informative and eye opening course designed to help employees to expand their awareness of mental health so that they can improve and maintain their own mental health as well as offer a bridge to support for others who may be experiencing a mental health challenge. It was interactive and engaging and I came away with a more informed under-standing of mental illness and how the stigma attached to it needs to be eliminated. Until that happens, education and awareness are the most effective tools we have.
This week is Mental Illness Awareness week. I encourage you to check out events that you can participate in. Here’s one link you might be interested in: https://www.nami.org/get-involved/awareness-events/mental-illness-awareness-week