Letters to the Editor

Viewpoint: Going public with mental illness

We must all take action to protect our mental health in times of stress and personal challenges. We must also support and help those one-in-four people who suffer from mental illness sometime in their lifetime.

Eliminating the stigma of mental illness and treating this brain disorder, as with any other physical disorder, will help maintain the wellness of the entire community.

Our son experienced his first manic episode 30 years ago at the age of 17 and was hospitalized for 10 days. I didn’t tell my family. I didn’t tell my friends. I certainly didn’t tell the people at the school where I taught. Fear and shock filled me. I also suffered shame and embarrassment. I even blamed myself, not having any idea what manic-depression was or what caused it.

Doctors claimed it was hereditary and a chemical imbalance in the brain. Although I knew one older relative received shock treatment, no one ever talked about it. Research revealed that Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Patty Duke, Mike Wallace and other famous people also suffered from mental illness. However, I still didn’t tell anyone and I didn’t feel any better.

One of our son’s doctors informed us about the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill San Gabriel Valley and my husband and I attended our first support group meeting 30 years ago.

What a relief to hear others talk about similar situations. We then could express our own fears and concerns. We found caring people who understood and gave us moral support.

Our son completed high school, earning National Merit finalist status and receiving an award for the athlete with the highest grade point average.

He attended UCLA and earned a degree in computer science in five years, in spite of suffering from manic breaks and being hospitalized every year, especially during finals and Christmas holidays. Some of his episodes were so traumatic that we would have to “rescue” him to get him admitted to a mental institution voluntarily.

Soon I started revealing his illness to my closest friends and co-workers. It was amazing what a wealth of support this became. Over the years, his severe psychotic episodes of mania and then depression led to 27 hospitalizations. He continued to take his medications, but they didn’t stabilize him.

More people, including the police, found out about his illness, now called bipolar disorder, and it bothered me less and less for them to know. The moreI shared my stories about our son’s illness, the more people revealed their own experience of a mentally ill family member or friend.

Realizing this was a major health issue that should be talked about just like cancer or heart problems, I joined the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill San Gabriel Valley, one of hundreds of affiliates in the country, to advocate to change the stigma and work towards more programs for those affected by mental illness.

Being family support leader, office manager, fundraiser chair and eventually co-president allowed me to meet many family members experiencing similar pain with the desire to make a difference with those with mental illness. Soon I bravely spoke to local organizations about our son’s illness. I went public!

Our son died of a heart attack eight years ago at the age of 40. The church was filled with our friends from the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, work and the community. Five members of our family spoke about our son’s battle with bipolar disorder. Yes, everyone knew and shared their love and sympathy with us.

Our family agreed that our son was now in a safer place with God. His gravestone reads, “This poor man cried and the Lord heard him and saved him out of all his troubles.” Psalm 34:6

We must all speak out to erase the stigma so those with mental illness can get the treatment, housing, health care, community programs and economic opportunities they deserve.

They must have the support to recover and return to a productive life. We also must show empathy for this brain disorder that upsets so many lives. Going public — it’s the right thing to do.

May is Mental Health Month and you are invited to attend the Public Mental Health Forum for family and friends with a mentally ill loved one at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Fellowship Hall in the Community Church of Atascadero.

The documentary “The Shaken Tree: Families Living with Mental Illness” will be featured. There will be information and support from Janice Holmes, lead family advocate; Henry Herrera, family advocate, Transitions Mental Health Association; Rae Belle and Roger Gambs. I will also share my experiences with a mentally ill son. The event is free and all are invited. For more information, call 460-9031.

Diane O’Neil lives in Atascadero.