What will you discuss at the Memorial Day picnic?

Memorial pinwheel

Recently a friend introduced me to his friend by saying to me, “You have to tell him what you’re writing.” People don’t always want to talk about what I’m writing. Because talking about mental illness at parties can kill the mood. Makes a person run for more coleslaw. And if mental illness is not in your family, it doesn’t affect you, right?

Mental illness really does affect a whole family. The man I met, let’s call him Justin, has a son who lives with serious and sometimes debilitating anxiety. As Justin and I talked, his friend, who was sitting beside him, nodded his head and seemed to know the whole story. He’s a good friend. Justin went on to describe his son’s challenges and that one of the most heartbreaking aspects of the illness is the way his son’s siblings, one of whom had been quite close, have distanced themselves from their brother. Justin’s son was getting healthier and learning to better manage the illness, but his siblings blamed him for his behaviors and thought he could control himself. They’d say he was “lazy” because he wasn’t always as functional as they thought he should be. They are angry with him and stay away from him. Imagine how Justin and his son must feel; more worrisome is that the one thing a person learning to manage mental illness really needs is support from loved ones.

But sadly, those who have a loved one living with mental illness—and who share living quarters—know that sometimes distance is required for their own survival.

It’s not fun hanging out with someone who starts talking nonsensically or is easily and unpredictably triggered to act out with extreme anger. 

That’s what mental illness does to families. It’s disruptive. It changes relationship dynamics. When the illness becomes symptomatic, a sibling who may have once shared a close relationship with the ill person often grieves along with the parent, at the (temporary or permanent) loss of their loved one’s talents and abilities. There is also anger because their sibling may have a thought disorder and cannot control behaviors. It’s not fun hanging out with someone who starts talking nonsensically or is easily and unpredictably triggered to act out with extreme anger. Some family members also feel betrayal because the ill person in the house sucks all the attention and exhausts everyone.

This churning mix of chaos, grief, and anger swirling in Justin’s house is similar to what many families of returning veterans experience. In 2002/2003 an estimated 1.4 million male and female veterans were identified as living with serious mental illness. Approximately 365,000 of these individuals had co-occurring substance abuse disorders.[1] These numbers have undoubtedly grown significantly in the ten war-years since the collection of this data. That’s a lot of families struggling to learn how to cope with grief and chaos while also supporting the recovery of their veteran-loved one.

Only many years after our Vietnam veterans returned were they given their due respect and many still don’t feel fully appreciated. But since that belated and collective mea culpa, we’ve all talked a lot about supporting our brave men and women who serve our country. We are only recently talking honestly about the serious brain injuries, mental illness, and substance use that our veterans come home burdened with as collateral damage from their service. And yet, it’s these injuries and illnesses that likely contribute to the appallingly high homeless rate amongst veterans (33% of all homeless males are veterans[2]).

That there are more than 1.4 million military families in our society grieving, coping, and supporting a family member who lives with mental illness should rightly elevate the importance and awareness of mental health for us all. Not just those who have a loved one with mental illness, and not just military families, but all of us. Because with that many affected families, it becomes society’s issue. With numbers this high, failing to address mental health with genuine intent is a repeat of the dishonor our service men and women experienced returning from Vietnam. They performed their duties as asked and we didn’t give them their due.

It may not be a fun topic for the next neighborhood barbeque, but it’s certainly a subject to address with congressional leaders and in meaningful political discourse. On this Memorial Day, we can put all that talk about honor into real action and support military families by pushing for better mental health care and supporting the families who support the returning veteran.

So yeah, it does affect you. And me. And the more than 1.4 million families across the country who are trying to make sense of it all.


[1] National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) provides statistics, information, and resources, and support for those seeking help in managing one’s own mental illness or that of a loved one.


[2] Source: http://www.veteransinc.org/about-us/statistics


Your comments are welcome:

2 Comments on “What will you discuss at the Memorial Day picnic?”

  1. mary sherman says:

    Beautifully said and represented, Mary. Thank you for so eloquently bringing this up this weekend.


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