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“On average, someone with mental illness will die ten years earlier than someone without mental illness.”
As I begin this new role blogging for Turning Point, I’m also in the process of taking a training through the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) called Family-to-Family. For those who are unfamiliar, Family-to-Family is a 12-week course for people who have a family member, friend or loved one who is living with mental illness, designed to educate them on the bio-psycho-social aspects of mental illness in its various forms, as well as to help them develop coping and problem-solving skills.
In my class of about ten, we are all there for different but similar reasons, all related in some way to mental illness being part of our personal lives.
One couple in particular, a little younger than my own parents, were there for their son, who has been living with mental illness for years, but recently relapsed and was psychotic (having a break with reality) and abusing alcohol to cope with his symptoms. He was missing at the time and they were very concerned about his well being.
Last week, they discovered that he had been located and that the police were involved – they were hoping the police would apprehend him so that they could reunite with him and hopefully get him the help he needed so that he could be safe and stabilize.
That was two weeks ago. They were up and down out of their seats. The mother was sharing how she’d been a wreck, but was taking an anti-depressant which was helping her to not feel as distraught.
I thought to myself: “They just need to detach a little bit. When he’s ready, he’ll come around. He doesn’t want to be controlled; it’ll work itself out; etc. etc.”.
I passed them in the hallway and didn’t ask how it was going – I didn’t want to intrude. I wondered if I knew their son – I guessed he might be about my age and that perhaps we went to school together. But I didn’t ask.
When I arrived to class last week, I arrived late. One of the instructors approached me. I figured it was to scold me for being tardy, but it was to share an announcement I had missed at the beginning of class.
“[They] lost their son yesterday” she said.
She didn’t mean that he was missing again, she meant that he was dead.
I didn’t know how to process the news at first. My automatic response to someone else’s problem – “that’s not my problem” – felt starkly inappropriate. Then I began to think about what had just happened. These people lost their son. He’s dead. He’s not coming back. I don’t know what their spiritual beliefs are but for all intents and purposes he’s gone from this world and they won’t be seeing him again.
I would venture to say that I think about death more than most people, however this incident really struck me and made me think of mental illness in a new way.
I’m used to my family members, acquaintances, etc who have mental illness (from mild to severe) where it’s annoying or inconvenient, baffling, and yes sometimes concerning, but because of the episodic nature and the fact that they usually get through it, I think it gives me a sense of “it’s not that much to worry about”.
In this case, with the couple’s son, it was different, or at least so it seemed. He had made it through before and my thought was that “he’ll get through it again, they just need to find a better/more successful way to manage it”.
But he didn’t make it through. With him, his mental illness got the best of him. They tried but in the end he died.
This experience underscored for me the fact that mental illness – like cancer, like heart disease, like HIV/AIDS – is a medical illness can be fatal if severe enough and left untreated. I would imagine the risk is even higher among people who have co-occurring disorders (as in the case of the son in this situation).
I hope and pray that as a community we will do everything we can to provide people living with mental illness the treatment and resources they need before it’s too late and that we provide people like this couple with the support and resources they need to manage this very challenging (and still stigmatized) illness when a loved one is affected.
People with mental illness die, on average, ten years earlier than someone without mental illness*. That is a significant disparity.
I am very sorry for the heartache that these parents will feel for having to bury their child – no parent should have to experience that. And no parent should be more likely to do so, simply because their child has a treatable mental illness.
* See NIMH “Director’s Blog: Mortality and Mental Disorders” (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/about/director/2015/mortality-and-mental-disorders.shtml)
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