Monday Musings…. Mental Illness is a Contagious Disease
When I read this statement recently, my initial reaction was shock. It sounded like a rather archaic belief rooted in the asylum days. I mean doesn’t a statement like this promote fear, judgment, misunderstanding, and discrimination? Isn’t this also implying that simply by social contact, a person will be vulnerable to developing the same symptoms? We’ve certainly heard about this contagion effect with suicide. Then I read further.
The author, sociologist David Karp, explained that mental illness not only affects the person who has the disorder, it “shapes the lives of those close to them.” He is so right. If you have a close friend, family member, co-worker, or classmate who is suffering, you often suffer too.
As I thought deeper about this reality, it brought me back a number of years ago when I was running a psycho-educational group for middle-aged men with bipolar mental illness. The sessions had been going on for a few weeks, when I suggested to my supervisor that because each of the men was married, it might be a good idea to invite their wives to the next meeting. My intention was to have the couples meet each other and find some common ground. What actually happened opened my eyes to the impact mental illness has within a family.
Everyone went around the room making the usual introductions, and then I had the men speak directly to their spouse. I asked them to say one thing they were grateful to their wives for. I thought this would be an easy task for the men to do, and I was confident it would set an encouraging tone for the rest of the session. Well, my request was met with silence. Painful, awkward silence. It lasted a good 2 minutes.
Finally, one of the men said he was thankful that his wife made his lunch. It was a start. Slowly the ball got rolling, and one by one, the words of gratitude became more meaningful. One of the last men to speak bowed his head and with tears in his eyes, confessed that he couldn’t believe it had taken him so many years to utter words of appreciation for the sacrificial love his wife had given him. He looked up and said he had never thought about how her life had changed and he now recognized that most of her energy was spent meeting his needs and keeping him stable and safe. It was an enlightening moment for the group. Tears flowed all around.
It’s not easy to adapt to a diagnosis of a mental illness. It’s not like the common cold, where you can take some over the counter meds or natural remedies and it’ll be gone in a few days. Getting the right help and treatment plan can take weeks, or months, and in some cases years. There is always the fear of ‘what if I don’t get better’. Daily monitoring of symptoms, taking medications, and the constant desire to go back to ‘normal’ becomes all-consuming. It’s very easy to become myopic and forget that the illness isn’t just your problem; the effects ripple out into your pool of influence. So, in this sense, mental illness is contagious.
This fact is a definite reality when I think of parents whose children are suicidal. They may have other kids in the home, jobs to go to, and bills to pay, and yet they are living in constant fear that they are going to walk in on the unthinkable. Given the stats I referred to a couple of weeks ago, there is an astounding number of parents whose lives are being shaped by those close to them and they too are suffering! So, who is watching out for them?
After 15 minutes or so, I asked the men in the group to head to the mall and grab some coffee, so the wives and I could talk by ourselves. It took no time for the wives to open up and not only did they find they had similar experiences on the surface, for the first time they felt truly understood. Many had been ostracized by their own families who had encouraged them to leave; some had been blamed for somehow enabling their partners’ struggles; most had never talked to anyone (personally or professionally) about the challenges they faced out of fear and guilt. You could actually feel their relief as they openly dialogued with each other. While it didn’t change the fact that they were all committed to helping their partners, what it did do was give them added strength to know that someone else was walking the same road with the same ‘disease’. They shared coping strategies and agreed that they themselves needed to keep meeting.
The men returned with coffee in both hands, one for themselves and the other was a thoughtful, intentional cup for their wives. The ripple effects of change were happening and I was glad to see it. They all shared in the pain, suffering, and daily struggles of living through or with someone who has mental illness.
In that room that day, an air-borne influenza was spread. Plenty of microorganisms of thoughts and emotions from various sources mixed together creating a virus that no one was immune from. They were able to share in each others’ sufferings, knowing they were no longer doing this alone or in silence. Mental illness does affect everyone; whether you are the one suffering, or you are close to someone who is. So instead of being shocked by the title of the blog, realize you can have courage, compassion, understanding, and acceptance when you realize you are not the only one who has the disease.
If someone close to you is struggling with mental illness, find a support group for families in your area. Google www.211Ontario.ca to find the nearest group. In the Sarnia Lambton area, Family Initiatives through Lambton Mental Wellness Centre offers sessions. Check them out! http://www.lmwc.ca/lambton-family-initiative.html
Toby Mac’s song “Family” reminds people of the hope and belief in the sacrificial elements of being a family.