What images surface for you when you think of “mental illness”? Do you assume that an afflicted person is permanently damaged, compromised and diminished? Do you feel as much empathy for the person and her family as you would if the condition were cancer? Does it inspire you to hear that the person has recovered from her mental illness, become a huge success in her field and shared her heart-wrenching psychiatric history with the world?
One of Seattle’s treasures, Dr. Marsha Linehan, shared her personal history of mental illness with the world this week. Dr. Linehan is a world-famous psychologist, researcher and creator of “dialectical behavioral therapy” (DBT). Her story was printed on the front page of the New York Times. The number of comments listed in its online version is a testament to how many people she has touched with her brave and intimate account of her hospitalizations, electroshock therapy, suicide attempts and self mutilation.
One of the people who contributed to the comment section mentioned that she received far more support and empathy when her husband was diagnosed with terminal cancer than when her daughter, niece and stepson were in the throes of mental illness. Dealing with her loved ones’ psychiatric illnesses was far more traumatic for her than her husband’s cancer diagnosis.
The taboo, ignorance, shame and isolation associated with psychiatric illness compound the pain of watching children suffer and struggle with psychopathology. Countless parents have told me of the intense stress they experience due the social stigma around their children’s psychological disorders. They feel that others view their children’s problems as their “fault”. Apparently, children with diabetes or Crohn’s disease (and by association, their family) are perceived as more innocent than children with severe depression, anxiety or learning problems.
One mother I worked with told me that her siblings no longer invite her to family reunions because they feel like she does not parent her son well (who has mild autism). Granted, he is obsessed with all things nautical, often grabs body parts inappropriately and makes annoying noises on occasion. But I can attest to her fabulous behavioral management skills, which have eliminated his self injurious behaviors and allowed him to be successful in school and in his friendships. Rather than a parenting slouch, this mom should be hired as a professional parenting coach!
Psychiatrically ill kids can be pretty messy. Ignorant folks often assume the mess is related to poor parenting practices. Some of it may be, but the parents can also be highly competent in their parenting skills. Moreover—they’ve been “tested” by extremely challenging kids. Some of us parents have had a mighty easy time of it if we live with “typical” kids without psychiatric illness. We should walk a mile in those other parents’ shoes before we judge their parenting.
When famous people like Mike Wallace, Betty Ford, Temple Grandin and Brook Shields discuss their mental illness in public forums, I stand up, shriek and do a victory dance. We need role models like Marsha Linehan who can share their stories and give people affected by mental illness hope and inspiration.
Parents who work hard every day to manage, accept and love their disturbed children are heroes to me. Thanks to Dr. Linehan, they can benefit directly from one of the most innovative and effective therapeutic models created in the last half-century, as well as the knowledge that it was created by one of their own.