Mental Illness: A Cause Near and Dear to Me

This is actually a revision to a post i first wrote back in 2007, but it's still just as pertinent (and pretty much unlearned) today as it was then and always has been... Also, to be clear, it's going to take a lot of things to help prevent the now seemingly constant shootings we have here, including smart and serious gun control laws being enforced, better mental health awareness and parity, and perhaps even looking at our culture as a whole. I am only addressing that which has directly affected my life.

This post is about an issue near and dear to my heart as well as important in the wake of the Connecticut, Portland, and Aurora shootings, as well as all the other recent instances of mass shootings and suicides recently.

Often the first reaction in the wake of such incidences is shock; shock that it happened, and shock that the person could do what they did. But after all the surrounding knowledge comes to light, it’s really not that surprising that it happened or that the person in question could do it. Such is mental illness; only visible when we choose to see it.

I am lucky in regards to the topic of mental illness. Well, I guess some might say not that lucky, but I consider myself lucky. I grew up in a house where there was mental illness. Mental illness runs on my mother’s side of the family; her grandmother had it, her father and a few of her uncles had dealt with it, including one suicide; my mother grappled with and still occasionally deals with major depression, and my brother is bipolar.

So in my house, mental illness never had the stigma it has in public. To us, it was just another thing, a fact of life. My parents and our extended family members always watched all of us kids and if any of us showed the signs of it (and there are always signs), they got us treatment. It was never taboo to talk about; it was dinner-table-worthy conversation. Because of this lack of stigma, and in spite of rough going sometimes, mental illness has never been allowed to take over any generation of us; openness has probably literally preserved my family.

Not knowing enough about mental illness, which enables the perpetuation of the stigma, is something that until we deal it as a society, incidences like Connecticut, Portland, and Aurora will keep on happening. It’s almost as if society deplores it when something tragic happens, but not enough to truly deal with the core issue; it’s as if the idea of mainstreaming the topic of mental illness and working to destroy the stigma is a worse scenario than periodically dealing with these tragedies. How quickly we forget that we could have done more to prevent them.

To be sure, I know there are no easy remedies or ways to deal with mental illness. In my brother’s case, though he was treated during his teens, once he was out of my parent’s purview, he rarely sought treatment and instead sank into drug and alcohol addiction, a very common remedy for people dealing with mental illness (even those unaware they have one.) But because he always knew in the back of his mind that he did have bipolar disorder, he periodically did seek treatment. Eventually, a few stormy years later, he summoned all his inner strength and started getting regular treatment; during its course, he also is now a recovering addict, and is successfully getting on with his life.

My brother and I sometime in the mid 1990s...

I wish the other major brush with mental illness in my life had as happy an ending. My very first boyfriend, my first love, was bipolar as well; actually, he and I went out way back when I was 16 and his illness did not manifest until afterward. We managed to retain our close friendship even after our breakup; we had a very tight group of six of us who were the best of the best of friends; he was one of them. About a year after we broke up (when he was 18), I started noticing some of the signs in him; many mental illnesses tend to manifest in the late teens and early twenties. I was not terribly close to his parents, but I told our friends; they mostly brushed it off as perhaps me just being a bit of a vengeful ex. This was the first point in my life that the topic of mental illness was broached outside of my family; I was stunned to see just how socially unacceptable it was, especially when we were talking about one of our closest friends.

Throughout the ensuing years, I periodically mentioned it as he showed more symptoms, but most of the time it fell on deaf ears. It was heartbreaking for me (and my sister who was also close friends with him), to watch him slowly disintegrate into the fog that is mental illness without being able to do much for him. As many in his situation do, he became dependent on alcohol, and wandered between school and assorted jobs. Some of our common friends began to see the enormity of his problems, and I know everyone tried to counsel him in some way or at the very least be there for him in support, but he never seemed to stay in one place for long. And after many years of battling his illness, in February 2003 he took his parents hostage to gain access to a gun (they escaped), used a fake explosive that required the evacuation of the surrounding area, and after a 12 hour standoff with the SWAT team and an emotional hours-long attempt by another close friend to talk him down, he took his own life.

When I looked at his father after the funeral, I knew he knew, and we spoke about it; there had been an incident a few years before that had gotten his family’s attention, but even when you know a lot about mental illness, it’s hard to deal with; baptism by fire is the most difficult initiation of them all. His family did the best they could with the limited time they had left with him.

james 4
My favorite picture of James; I think he is 17 in this picture...

I still feel an enormous amount of guilt – I could have done more – and I don’t suppose that I will ever be able to completely reconcile that feeling within myself. However, I do know that guilt and searching for something or someone to blame are our natural reaction in trying to make sense of the insensible. I also know that we can’t let these things consume us; we need to be proactive in changing the way we deal with mental illness. Connecticut is yet another wake-up call in a very long line of wake-up calls.

There is a high correlation between substance abuse and mental illness; there is also a high correlation between homelessness and mental illness; both of these are huge issues that we still have not learned how to deal with in this country. Suicide is the third leading cause of death of people aged 15 to 24 - the 3rd leading cause! And now we have Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who are coming home to sub par and inadequate treatment for mental illnesses such as PTSD. We are a nation who desperately, NOW, needs to come out of its box and confront this issue head on. Connecticut, Portland, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Columbine, Jared Loughner, Andrea Yates, John Hinckley, Northern Illinois University and the many other incidences, including the many daily suicides in this country, we could have seen them coming. People nearing a breaking point exhibit “tells;” we as a society are just ignorant of them. And we need not be.

We need to do more as a society to understand mental illness. We need to do more as a society to give treatment for mental illness parity with regular health care. We need to pour more research into this treatment; one of the biggest complaints is that some of the medications have such unbearable side effects that many times, people quit taking them and go back to whatever substance had become their crutch. We need to not treat mental illness as something shameful; that shame alone prevents so many people from seeking help as well as stops possibly concerned friends and family members, co-workers, fellow students and teachers from broaching the subject with the person or their family. We need to learn the signs so we can be a source of support for those we know who might be going through it; they need to know that it’s ok, they’re not alone, there is help. We need to make better avenues available for families that are dealing with hard cases of mental illness and are at their wit's end. We need to stop using words such as “psycho” and “deranged” about people suffering with mental illness – they only serve to feed the stigma. Mental illness is not crazy; it’s just another illness like all the rest. We need to wake up America, and realize that there are things we can do to try to help prevent many tragedies that take place today.

Some helpful links:

NIMH Health & Outreach

Bipolar Disorder



Suicide Prevention

As you can probably tell, this is an issue that is near and dear to me, as well as something I feel very passionately about. If I were ever in the position to add the title "philanthropist" to a description of me, mental health awareness would be my pet cause. For now, other than being vocal on a local level, this column is my forum to send out my call. So let’s wake up! This column is dedicated to James (Oct 1968- Feb 2003) and to Scott who is successfully plugging along...

james n me 1
One of my favorite pictures of James and me, taken sometime in the early 1990s; it reflects our close (and sometimes silly) friendship... This coming February marks 10 years gone...




Your rating: None Average: 3 (5 votes)


Thomas Eagleton was my first awakening

geomoo's picture

He was George McGovern's vice-presidential candidate until it was shown that he had been treated for depression.  I watched with great disappointment as Sen. McGovern first pledged to stand by his choice then later agreed that he should step down from his candidacy.  He was considered an unviable candidate because he had taken the mature step of seeking treatment for his problem.  As the author says, people prefer those who are in denial and likely self-medicating to the honest approach.

Another major area in which this show itself is in the stigma attached to veterans who seek treatment for PTSD.

Anyway, not a lot to add.  My sympathies on the loss of your good friend, and appreciation for opening the door to this important discussion.  Here's to your brother.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

thanks geomoo!... and yeah, what does that say....

poligirl's picture

about our society that we seem to prefer to keep the topic relegated to the outskirts and those suffering from it self medicated instead of actually doing something about the health care system to help them?

and we're so surprised when someone goes off the deep end...?

i know this is only part of the answer, but we've got no excuse not to deal with all this stuff now...

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

Runs in my family too.

type1error's picture

We've had bipolar, anxiety disorder with agoraphobia, depression, and substance abuse. I'm also lucky that my family considers mental illness no different from a physiological issue. I had a panic attack when I was in college and went home. When I told my mother and sister I was having a panic attack, they were like, "Okay."

Your rating: None Average: 3 (5 votes)

My family, too

geomoo's picture

My brother was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, although drug abuse certainly colored that interpretation.  My entire life I have kept a close eye on myself.  I am aware that my thoughts tend to the paranoid, and I make a conscious effort not to give these thoughts credence in the absence of evidence.  (I have to admit, though, that these days paranoid thoughts are disappointingly useful for interpreting the state of the world.)

It seems to me that the conversation can be generalized--Americans in general are more concerned with how things look than with how they really are.  Much more money is being spent on creating opinions which reject climate change than in dealing with the issue.  More energy is put into creating the impression of the U.S. as a defender of human rights than in actually defending human rights.  Corporate "food" purveyors are more interested in associating their products with the latest health information than with actually using that information to improve their products, etc.  In the case in question, it seems that one of the primary motivations in the public discussion is to get this issue behind us quickly so that we can go back to pretending we are a universally wise and loving people, a people untroubled by mental illness, a people worthy of being presented on television.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

like you too, geomoo, i have kept...

poligirl's picture

a close eye on myself, even going to see a doctor for a lengthy period a couple times just to make sure...

and yeah, unfortunately i have no doubt that people will pay attention this week and then forget all about it and go back to the normal state of things, at least until the next incident happens... sigh...

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

yep - you know how much of a difference it...

poligirl's picture

makes when it's nothing but a normal thing... wasn't anything embarrassing or shameful about it... and everyone knew what to do about it...  folks like us are lucky type1...  :D

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Wow, great piece, poligirl

priceman's picture

This is a subject that has affected you personally. That is a sad story about James. Mental illness runs in my family, too. It comes in different forms. My father is a high functioning mentally ill person who rejects the fact that he is and resents the fact that he was told so during my parent's divorce. he doesn't believe in any science about mental health and arrogant about it. Everyone on my father's side is a little bit mentally ill. MY brother had a bout with a chemical imbalance in the late 90s and we got him treatment for it and he's doing good today but ti was hard on my mother for a good while.

Rosalynn Carter and The Rosalynn Carter Fellowships For Mental Health Journalism is doing what it can to put this issue to the forefront. Until this issue is given proper attention, it will be a serious factor with all acts of violence and suicide IMO. This problem is also too expensive and if people really care we need to make funding for it for people and veterans something we invest in as a country for the good of everyone so people don't have to go bankrupt to treat this problem.

Thanks, poligirl! Thanks for sharing.

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

sorry to hear about your pop priceman!...

poligirl's picture

and yeah, sometimes folks with it can be high functioning - most of my uncles were that way save for the sometimes breakdowns - and a couple of them were really bad - holding family at gunpoint, etc... - but they were for the most part extremely smart and very highly functional....

and you hit the nail on teh head here:

Until this issue is given proper attention, it will be a serious factor with all acts of violence and suicide IMO.

Ineed it will... sigh....

Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Indeed, he is an attorney who makes a decent living...

priceman's picture

and according to him "they're all wrong" and there's nothing wrong with him(he's arrogant that way and with everything), but his paranoia is way out there and he is mentally ill despite being able to function. It's complicated but it's the reality like with your uncles.

Thanks again, poligirl.


Your rating: None Average: 3 (2 votes)

Is there ANY family that doesn't have some mental illness in it?

Ohio Barbarian's picture

I've never met one, and I've met lots of people in the five states I've lived in. There's a stigma attached to mental illness, and I believe it goes back, in European cultures anyway, to an ill-fated attempt to understand it through Christian, and specifically Roman Catholic, religious dogma. 

Psychology didn't exist then, and people naturally try to understand things through a set of beliefs that they DO understand. Blaming mental illness on demonic possession or witchcraft made about as much sense centuries ago as anything else, I suppose. 

Throw in "socially acceptable" behavior, which was all the vogue in the 19th Century, and the importance of keeping up appearances and controlling one's emotions in the Victorian era and you get a strong recipe for just ignoring the problem. The first serious blow to this paradigm wasn't effectively administered until old Sigmund Freud came along and figured out that people "repressed" socially unacceptable thoughts. 

I might be wrong, but it's at least a theory that fits the facts. I think. 

Nowadays our for-profit medical system constantly develops new drugs to be used to control, if not cure, various mental illnesses, and psychiatric researchers are paid to come up with new "syndromes" to explain such common things as the terrible twos, temper tantrums, boredom, and sheer stubbornness. Each of which can be helped by some medication. 

I'm very skeptical about that and have a very low opinion of psychiatry, for I've seen way too many cases up close and personal where the cure was worse than the disease. And I've never met anyone suffering from depression or manic-depression(a more accurately descriptive term than the bland "bipolar disorder" IMHO) who has been cured or permanently stabilized by psychoactive drugs. Not one person. 

Of course, psychiatrists have a term for people like me who question their authority and expertise: "Anti-authoritarian personality disorder," or some such rot. Humbug!

Mental illness is still very real, and it can be helped, but not just with pills. Psychological therapy, and the knowledge that the patient is not alone and their condition isn't all their fault(sometimes some of it IS, that's where responsibility still comes in), can work wonders.

But there's just not that much profit in that approach, which is why nothing will ever really be done about this issue on a societal scale so long as capitalism rules. 

Your rating: None Average: 3 (3 votes)

you're right in that it can't be dealt with with just pills...

poligirl's picture

and too often people think that just throw a pill at it and it'll be fine is a good approach, it's not. it's learning how to deal with what your felleing are, learning your own triggers, and other things that get worked through with a competent Psych.

i have seen people unfortunately in person in those phases and for the most part, with a combo of ongoing therapy and meds, have been able to be productive and functional human beings. but the illness doesn't really go away; there is not cure, and those with it have to be vigilant.

of course, my maternal side has some very heavy dominant mental illness, so it's possible that most families don't see it to the degree that my family has....

Your rating: None Average: 3 (1 vote)

Thanks for not taking offense.

Ohio Barbarian's picture

In the past, perhaps due to my own inablility to always make myself clear, perhaps due to corporate Big Pharma propaganda, I've been pilloried for saying something like I did up there. 

I'm no Scientologist(hell, even the IRS and the federal court system saw through them). I'm no psychologist, either. You may well be right about the degree of mental illness in your family, But it's everywhere, to one extent or the other. Maybe it's even served the species in an evolutionary way, from time to time. 

Anyway, I know from my own very deeply personal experiences with mentally ill people with whom I have lived that it's damned tough to deal with. Looks like you know. 

Well. Happy holidays, and all that. Doesn't hurt. 

No votes yet

such a tragedy

sartoris's picture

I have cried twice watching the news the last few days.  Gun control must be implemented in this country.  Asperger's is not a mental illness, merely a form of autism.  However, this young man was mentally ill or he would not have shot his mother in the face, and then murdered strangers, and babies.  This country (most countries, in fact) is as uncomfortable discussing mental illness as it is discussing gun control.  Mental illness is a stigma that once attached to a person can rarely be 'exorcised'.  Anyone here old enough to remember Kitty Dukakis?  Read The Snake Pit if you want a glimpse into the hell that was America's recent treatment of the mentally ill. 

My own mother was institutionalized frequently when I was a child.  It was easier then for a person to be involuntarily committed.  She was a displaced Southern woman living in the North without any friends.  She was trying to raise two boys while her husband worked in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana.  She could not deal with her loneliness and the cultural shift she had experienced upon leaving the South.  She was often attempting suicide, becoming 'hysterical', and just having 'nervous breakdowns', and my father just did not have the capacity to deal with her.  None of us did.  When I was in 3rd or 4th grade I had to get the neighbor because she had cut herself in an attempt.  She was gone for quite a long time after that episode.  When she came back she was much more subdued and things were much calmer and the house was even more depressed afterwards.  I do not want to return to a time when husbands and parents can have their spouses/children involuntarily committed.  As a person who has experienced both lonely sides of the mental illness spectrum I do not want to give up my liberty to a 'parole' board of disinterested doctors or incompetent politicians whose trust I have to earn to escape the jail that is the modern day mental institution.  I cannot support any laws that make it easier to confine the 'mentally ill' against their will.  However, I can support gun control.  I can support that right now. 

Anyone who is actually serious about stopping these types of massacres will support gun control.  Make it expensive to buy a weapon.  Make it expensive to buy bullets.  When America is willing to grow up, then, and only then, will these massacres become a thing of the past.  

Your rating: None Average: 3 (4 votes)

in dealing with mental illness, i agree we cannot...

poligirl's picture

go back to the times past where anyone could commit anyone for anything. all of my great uncles were institutionalized at one time or another and my great grama was lobotomized, which was standard back then.

however, there has to be a slightly easier way to get someone evaluated who would not otherwise subject them to evaluation. something a long the line of a 72 hour hold. and there have to be safeguards to prevent lazy parents and spouses from using it for punishment. but right now it's almost impossible to have someon evaluated without a crime being committed and by that time, a lot of times it's too late...

Your rating: None Average: 3 (1 vote)