Mental Illness Awareness Week 2012

  • This week is Mental Illness Awareness Week.  October is Italian Heritage Month. 


    How does heritage fit in with mental health?  I want to talk about the role culture plays in a person's recovery.


    As a kid, I had an extended family that gathered for holidays and parties and celebrations.  My uncle was a priest who would take us for long walks on Thanksgiving after dinner. 


    We would dance the tarantella in American Legion halls.  We would sing songs with lyrics like: "Lazy Mary, get off the sheets, we need them for the table."


    My mother's father was Sicilian and this grandfather was in a coma, hooked up to a respirator in the intensive care unit of the hospital when I had my breakdown.  He was the one who gave me unconditional love and encouraged my childhood dream to become a writer.  Seeing him in the coma was my breaking point.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    That Christmas in 1987 when I got out of the hospital I celebrated Christmas Eve with the traditional fish dinner dubbed The Night of the Seven Fishes-a nod to Nonna's Neapolitan roots.  I'm grateful that every year since I was a kid we could afford lobster, clams, mussels, shrimp and angel hair pasta with marinara sauce.


    This is the lead-in to talk about how establishing a routine is one of the greatest benefits in a person's recovery.  Establishing traditions can anchor you  in stable waters and promote something to look forward to as you go about your days navigating the challenges of living with schizophrenia.


    A quick Google search of schizophrenia culture recovery statistics doesn't bring up anything related to ethnicity so this gap alarms me.  It does bring up estimates of recovery rates though.  It would interest me to find out exactly how various cultures experience and respond to a schizophrenia diagnosis.


    After I came out of the hospital, no one in my immediate family talked about what happened.  I sat at the long oak dining table silently eating my lobster and mourning the loss of Grandpa, who died while I was in the hospital.  I wondered what they thought when I didn't show up to the funeral home or the church service.


    I'm 47 now, so that gives you an idea of how long these Christmas Eve dinners have been going on.  More recently, I gained support and encouragement from the extended Italian American community I joined in June 2000.


    That June, I screwed up the courage to go solo to the poetry reading hosted by the Italian American Writers Association every month.  I began reading excerpts from my memoir and tales of City life there regularly.  In August 2004, I performed at the event as a featured reader.  I read the breakdown scene from my memoir and the positive, upbeat ending of that book.


    Through this involvement, I met numerous other people with loved ones who had schizophrenia. The first time I disclosed was in the original Italian American writers workshop I started attending in 2001.  I presented the breakdown scene for the other writers' feedback. 


  • The Italian American poetry readings are open to everyone of all cultures who mingle with us after the event too.  A crew of young bohemians used to trek in to perform.  A woman would take the train there from Queens well into her eighties.

    Add This Infographic to Your Website or Blog With This Code:


    It's because the Italians I know foster a culture of "everyone's welcome at the table" that I get along well with members of my tribe.  The idea that you can mix culture and ethnicity and creativity to help you recover appeals to me too.

    In this way, culture is important because it shapes our response to the world. 


    My Italian family responded only positively to me with unconditional support after I was diagnosed.


    Another way heritage could inform a person's recovery is interesting.  I'm Calabrese and Sicilian.  Calabrese are known as teste dura or hard heads because they're stubborn.  As a guy told me once: "Nobody better mess with you because you're Italian."


    In this way, giving up wasn't an option for me: I was willing to fight long and hard to come to a semblance of recovery.


    After I read the breakdown scene at the poetry event, people would come up to me months later and praise what I read.  My courage to disclose was only positive.


    After the readings, people talk together until the bartender ushers us out of the room.  For just one night, it's as if you've known the other person your whole life even though you haven't met him before.


    I would urge anyone in recovery from schizophrenia or another mental illness to take pride in your heritage and embrace your cultural roots.  I realize most of us were born and have lived in America all our lives.  Yet I place equal weight on the Italian side of my equation.


    One way this played out recently is that at midlife I've suddenly become a cook: I buy cookbooks, shop at the local Greenmarkets and try my hand at recipes.  My favorite recipe is Garlic Shrimp from the Teresa Giudice cookbook Skinny Italian


    Yes, she's from the Real Housewives of New Jersey but don't let that detract you.  It's an excellent book that I recommend.  I've also created the spaghetti cacio e pepe that's featured.  For extra fiber, use whole-wheat spaghetti.


    I'll end here with this:

    I'd be interested in hearing from community members about the role culture played or continues to play in your recovery.




Published On: October 07, 2012