A member of my extended family reached out to me recently asking me if I believe manic depression is a “real thing.” He knew that I have spent the past seven years reporting on suicide, depression, anxiety and mental health issues.
“Yes, absolutely,” I responded, without hesitation.
He wanted validation he wasn’t getting from his nuclear family.
I’m not an expert in mental health issues, but he was seeking solace from someone who likely would understand. His family, like so many others across the country, denied that mental illness is something real. We are told to “chin up,” “shake it off,” “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” or “you’ll get over it.” The euphemisms are endless.
He was told not to talk about it because “You don’t need your dirty laundry out there for everyone to see.” Few want to admit there might be something “wrong” with a family member, or, heaven forbid, that we be perceived as “weak” or “needing help.”
His mother has told him, “There is no such thing as mental illness.”
He kept arguing that he suspected there was something wrong with him.
“You’re not crazy,” he recalled his mother saying. “You’re OK.”
But he knew something was off-balance. He was short-tempered and experienced outbursts of anger. He was verbally abusive to his family and drank to “numb the pain.”
The verbal abuse spilled over into the family business and he was cut loose. Then he was not only mentally ill but out of a job, and without an income.
He was thrice divorced and contemplated suicide. He credits his son and daughter for getting him to mental health treatment center.
In 2011 he was diagnosed as manic-depressive, or bipolar. According to the National Mental Health Institute, it is a brain disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks.
He is in his 60s now, and still fears what his mother would say if she saw his name in print talking about his mental illness. But he wants to talk about it. He wants it out in the open so that others might understand what he has gone through.
He is married now to his fourth wife, says he’s happy, and regularly seeks medical help for his illness. He relies on three medications to help stabilize his brain chemistry.
He suspects others in his family live with mental illness, but all are in denial. And he may be right.
The genetic component of mental illness
Bipolar disorder tends to run in families. It is important to note that most people with a family history of bipolar disorder will not develop the illness. But children with a bipolar parent or sibling are much more likely to develop the illness, compared with children who do not have this family history. I applaud him for getting the help he needs, for speaking up and for not living in shame.
Another member of our extended family spent time in a state-run hospital. He was a veteran who turned to alcohol after his service. Family members described him as “screwy in the mind.”
I shudder to write those words. I believe everyone should be treated with dignity and respect.
This is a relative of mine. We have had so many illnesses in our family, including lung cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer, diabetes and more. Every single one of those was treated aggressively to give our loved one the best chance at a longer, robust quality of life.
But when it comes to an illness of the mind, many pretend no such thing exists.
That saddens me deeply.
*I have a job to do and will continue to do it. Already some of my relatives have distanced themselves from me. That saddens me. I’ve done nothing wrong. I have simply stood up for those with mental illness. *
If you or someone you know may be suffering from a mental illness, there is help:
For general information on mental health and to find local treatment services, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Treatment Referral Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
The SAMHSA website has a Behavioral Health Treatment Services Locator that can search for treatment information by address, city, or ZIP code.
Visit the NIMH’s Help for Mental Illnesses webpage for more information and resources.
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Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning health writer living in Palm Springs. She has worked at newspapers in California, South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and at USA Today. Cindy received a 2013-2014 Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Journalism, chosen as one of the California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, inducted into the Yankton (S.D.) High School Fine Arts Hall of Fame, nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for her work on Montana’s suicide rate, and named one of Gannett’s Top Ten Supervisors of the Year. Follow Cindy on Twitter @CindyUken, on Facebook and at CindyUken.com.