Mental illnesses are second only to heart disease as the leading causes of illness worldwide. One in five Americans younger than 18 has a diagnosable mental disorder. One in 100 Americans will suffer from schizophrenia. My son Joel was one of them: diagnosed at 17 with schizophrenia, a mental illness that manifests itself with hallucinations, delusions, and disorganized thinking, we battled the disease’s stigma in silence.
Joel was an adorable baby and the first grandchild on both sides of the family. He was charming, engaging, and doted upon by family members. As he got older, he was very accomplished: he played jazz piano and the trombone, was on the debating and wrestling teams, and received several scholarships. While he had eccentricities, we never thought of his oddities as a mental illness. However, when Joel was 17, my son’s doctor uttered eight words that changed our lives forever: “Your son has schizophrenia. Do not tell anyone.” He explained that the stigma for mental illnesses was so horrific that people would not regard my family in the same way if they knew about Joel’s diagnosis. As a result of heeding the doctor’s well-intentioned advice, we were paralyzed as a family with feelings of isolation and guilt for many years. That is, until we became educated about mental illness.
As our family learned through experience, there is a huge stigma surrounding schizophrenia as well as other major mental illnesses such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), bipolar disorder, and anxiety disorder. Even with the astounding statistics provided above, we felt alone in dealing with the issues that Joel’s diagnosis presented to our family.
In 1983, more than 10 years after Joel was diagnosed, my husband and I attended a meeting of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). It was a life-changing event because we discovered that we were not alone! We were in a roomful of people who also had a mentally ill family member, but they were no longer keeping silent. They were advocating on behalf of their family members. They were working to help their loved ones get better housing, support services, and more money for much needed research! They were striving to educate people to use appropriate words when talking about brain diseases, rather than insensitive labels such as “schizo,” “nutcase,” etc., that only reinforce the stigma. That very evening, I became an advocate and have since devoted my time to educating people about mental illness.
I eventually partnered with another teacher/parent to create a series of lesson plans to teach about mental illness in our schools. The lessons, “Breaking the Silence: Teaching the Next Generation About Mental Illness” ( http://www.btslessonplans.org/ ), are user friendly packets for students in grades four through 12. Using age-appropriate stories, poems, games, role-plays, and posters, important lessons are taught. Students learn that mental illnesses are no one’s fault, that mental illnesses are brain diseases, and that there is help available. As an elementary school teacher with over 25 years of experience, I know that today’s health curriculum includes teaching about the dangers of alcohol, smoking, cancer prevention, and the importance of living a healthy lifestyle. Unfortunately, many students graduate without having had one lesson on mental illness. This is truly astounding because education is the key to understanding, and understanding the true facts surrounding mental illness helps dispel myths and diminish the stigma. Encourage your schools to teach about mental illnesses so teachers and their students will understand the facts and recognize the warning signs. As students become more knowledgeable, they will hopefully become more compassionate as well.
We lost Joel two years ago when he suffered a fatal heart attack at age 51. During his life, he made heroic efforts to have a positive attitude and, in doing so, helped many others remain hopeful. His favorite expression was “Better days are coming!” I believe Joel’s legacy will be to help millions with mental illness experience better days. Hopefully my passion for teaching about mental illness will help achieve this goal. Please join me in my crusade to break the silence!
5 TIPS ON WHAT YOU SHOULD DO IF YOU SUSPECT YOUR CHILD MAY HAVE A MENTAL ILLNESS
Keep a log of your child’s behavior. This will provide helpful documentation of how your child is doing.
Listen to your child. Treat his or her feelings with respect.
Keep structured routines. When events call for a change in routine, prepare your child for the change by warning him or her beforehand.
Be in close contact with your child’s school. Work together with your child’s teacher to do what is in the best interest of your child educationally.
Do not forget the emotional needs of other members of the family. Everyone is affected when one member has a problem.
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