Or, When It’s Good To Break The Rules.
“In other cultures, children live with their parents into adulthood. I don’t understand this push to get them out of the house. Families should be together.”
This is what Catherine said only months after her son, Philip, had died. He had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. He had gone off his medication, became psychotic, and had lain on a railroad track.
I can still feel the pain in her voice as my sister and I sat in the darkening room listening to her story, surrounded by pictures of him that had been on display since his funeral.
His father and others who didn’t fully understand his illness had, against her wishes, encouraged Philip to move away from her and live in a group house. They said he needed to become more independent. Catherine knew Philip wasn’t capable of many things, including living on his own. From his first break, Catherine had been Philip’s primary advocate and caregiver, made every medical decision, health insurance arrangement, and compiled mental notes about his changing behaviors for his doctors. While living with her, Philip was capable of few things but she encouraged him to attend therapies and workshops that seemed helpful for him and had him on a schedule of things to do each day. That, she felt, was important to his healing. She even adopted two kittens to keep him company during the day when she had to be away for work. But she had little support in caring for him.
At the time of Philip’s death, his housemates were away for the holidays, he wasn’t being monitored and he was very, very ill.
I think about Catherine often. She is a kind and giving person who did everything she could for her son. But she was often doing it alone, and now grieves alone. I think about Catherine when I read or hear about a parent who struggles alone, without support or understanding from a spouse or other family members. Because people living with mental illness do much better when they are well supported by loved ones. The single parents we interviewed told us they had to find ways to cope, and they are exhausted. Often their new partners (who are not the biological parents of their children) have trouble understanding what to do when a person is in a mental health crisis and that scene can get ugly. Parents who are supported by their spouse expressed that they couldn’t fathom how a single parent could care for a child with a mental illness without the other parent stepping in. Because a crisis is unpredictable, all-encompassing and sometimes downright frightening.
Support doesn’t come just from immediate family. It’s a community at large that can make a difference for a person who lives with mental illness. This is why the movement lead by BringChange2Mind and other groups to talk about mental illness is so important.
In her article, Beyond the Brain from last summer’s The Wilson Quarterly, (http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/article.cfm?aid=2196#.UOR7b8OB6j0) Tanya Marie Luhrmann argues that strong community can be the difference between functioning and not for a person living with mental illness. Given that higher stress can trigger mental illness for individuals who have a proclivity for it, she cites research on immigrants and suggests a correlation between weak community for the new arrivals and higher rates of schizophrenia. Luhrmann makes a good case for the efficacy of treatment when family and a tight-knit community surround an ill person.
What Luhrmann talks about regarding community and family and advocating for a loved one with mental illness is what we learned from the parents we interviewed. Successful outcomes seemed more likely for those who were supported by advocates who are supported also. There are times a family must send a loved one away to a qualified treatment facility—for addictions or other mental health issues—but here too, the best facilities create an atmosphere of belonging and inclusion in some manner. It should make sense to anyone that the healing needed by a person in crisis can more likely begin by being embraced rather than rejected into the margins.
Catherine’s dismay that Western society boots a young adult out the door was justified. In her gut she knew her son needed his loved ones—his mother, sometimes his sibling and their circle of friends— around him because he was very ill. Dan and Rebecca also knew their adult daughter needed to lounge around their house for the year after she was released from hospital treatment for depression. Sometimes, for the love of family, one has to break society’s rules. Or make the rules bend toward compassion.
*Blogger’s note: After publishing this post, we heard from one of our contributors who clarified that it is not always in the best interest of the family for a mentally ill person to live at home. When a person with mental illness is unstable or has erratic behaviors, it creates a chaotic and unproductive environment for the family where often the parents devote all their energy to the ill person and neglect other familial relationships. Depending on the phase of recovery, a person with mental illness may do best within a structured treatment facility or a group residence.
Our intended message for this post was that our parent/ contributors have found it is best to make decisions regarding living arrangements and treatments that are in the best interest of the ill person, not what society dictates is the way adults should live. The well-being of loved ones is critical as these individuals are usually the best support a mentally ill person has in his corner.
Thank you to our reader for prompting a clarification. We always welcome comments.