There is help for families, friends of the mentally ill

Opinion by Debra Orman McHugh, published in the Salem Statesman Journal, August 29 2008

When I first read of the death of Andrew Hanlon, I was overcome with fear. My initial thought was, “My God! That could have been my family! That could have been my son!”

Even in those first moments of shock, I was keenly aware of how the life and death of one family member affects the whole family. That is no less true when that family member struggles with mental illness.

I have been affected by the mental illness of a family member, in one way or another, for more than 30 years. Whether dealing with the illness of a child or a spouse, a parent or a sibling, the impact on the family can be unbearable.

The reality is that there are many of us who live with the pain of having a seriously mentally ill family member. Worries about the health and safety of that family member are constant and wearing. Feelings of helplessness, anger and frustration are inescapable. For people living with serious mental illness and their families, the most insidious feeling is that of isolation.

Serious mental illness strikes people of all ages, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is not the result of poor parenting, but of imbalanced brain chemistry. With a wide range of services tailored to their needs, and often medication, most people who live with serious mental illnesses can significantly reduce the impact of their illness and have a satisfying life and achieve independence.

While finding effective medical and psychiatric care is a first priority, most people with serious mental illness need more than medical help. They need the structure and steady support that family, friends and neighbors can provide.

As I thought about the death of Andrew Hanlon — a son, a brother, a friend — I was motivated to take action. I am speaking out about my experience with serious mental illness in the hope that it will give another parent or sister or daughter the freedom to seek help for their family member and themselves.

Loving a person with mental illness (especially one who is unstable) is emotionally and physically exhausting. Many of us feel there is no one else living our struggle. I want to reach out to other families like mine and tell them we are not alone. There is a place where we can go to get information, support and, occasionally, a shoulder to cry on.

The National Association on Mental Illness is the nation’s largest grass-roots mental-health organization dedicated to improving the lives of people living with serious mental illness and their families. Members of NAMI are families, friends and people living with serious mental illnesses such as major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, panic disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline personality disorder.

Here in Salem, NAMI Marion-Polk provides free education and support to people living with mental illness and their family and friends. We are not alone.