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Mental illness isn’t ‘other people’

Her son was 'at risk' and she missed the signs; now, she speaks out to support and remove the stigma from those in need

Had you asked me five years ago, I would have said that I did not personally know anyone who struggled with mental illness. Those days, the only time I became aware of this scourge was when I encountered those unfortunate souls who lived in the subways. Mental illness seemed an issue that had absolutely nothing to do with me.

On Friday, July 20, 2012, I learned, in fact, that mental illness and I had a very close relationship, after I found my son, having attempted to take his own life, close to death. At that time, I believed this happened without any warning.

But, in fact, there had been signals. There had been some acts of poor judgment that had started materializing in the past year, and certain times when Jonathan seemed to behave out of character completely, seeming so deeply sad for no apparent reason. It seemed bizarre, but, other than during these aberrant stints, he was so “normal,” in that he was respectful, helpful, introspective, analytical, and affectionate. I assumed that these ups and downs were the expected behavior pattern of a 20-year-old adolescent male. It wasn’t fun, but it seemed standard. This was the form and depth of our denial.

There was no friend in whom to confide, even in my moments of worry. When I disclosed some behaviors to certain friends who had adolescent sons, they didn’t express alarm or suggest anything might be awry. It was easy to stay blind.

Once the truth pounded our heads with a club and we needed to find a way to help him, we still had no idea where to turn for information or support. We were utterly alone and isolated by stigma and ignorance. As far as we were aware, our terrible problem was unique in our community. Who would have the knowledge to guide us even if we were willing to reach out to them?

Over these past four years, I have been contacted by many whose lives have been disrupted by mental illness. Those who suffer themselves contact me to understand their own parents better. They speak with me about their own behavior and seek words of comfort that they wish they could hear from their parents. Parents contact me to ask for referrals for treatment. Or, they present their child’s behavior and ask if it is possible that these are signs of mental illness. They almost always deny it when I tell them that they might consider that their child has an illness; I recognize the language of denial, as the words are familiar to me. Sometimes, they contact me to talk about how they feel. Siblings contact me to ask for ideas on how to help their parents deal with their brother’s/sister’s illness, which is tragically destroying the family. They ask how they can help their parents “face” the illness and the steps they can take to survive emotionally. At the end of every encounter, I am thanked profusely, and often tearfully.

With this writing, though there may still be ignorance, I encourage people to reach out to their friends if they suspect their own child is ill, or if they are already aware of their child’s illness. I appreciate that this is difficult to do in a society that stigmatizes mental illness.

To those who need help I would say: The stigma is slowly decreasing and will eventually go away; don’t wait until it’s gone. Don’t wait, because there is too much at stake and you might not have the luxury of time, as I didn’t. Don’t stop with one friend; that “pearl of wisdom” that you need may reside with the next friend, or the next. Don’t be afraid of being judged. Even if your friend is not able to offer advice, you may get the support so essential to help you soldier on.

I had no “Ruth” to whom to turn because of our own, and others’ fear of stigma — the way others can turn to me. Now, with deeper understanding, I am gratified to be able to help others; it won’t bring Jonathan back to us, but it is the only thing that brings some measure of healing. People call me courageous as a result. That adjective isn’t accurate; I simply envision myself in a “post-judgmental” and “de-stigmatized” world, and act accordingly.

To those who need the support or can offer it, I promise that in taking this approach you won’t be sorry. You may discover that others share these very same issues; you may decide to check your assumptions. Your burden may be lessened. For certain, you will find some relief and help someone else, and that will make an enormous difference.

About the Author
Ruth Tepler Roth received her MS from the Columbia University School of Social Work and an MBA from the NYU Stern School of Business. She has previously worked in the field of marketing and sales in the healthcare industry as VP of Marketing/Sales at an insurance company specializing in mental health/substance abuse services, and more recently as director of admissions/PR at a private yeshiva elementary school. She is a wife, and a mother of three children - two daughters, and a son, who took his own life. As one would expect, this cataclysmic event in her life caused a major shift in her awareness and thinking about mental illness and she devotes much of her time and energy to help destigmatize mental illness, and to be supportive of people who struggle with their own mental illness, and parents and siblings of those who suffer from a mental illness. She writes on topics related to mental illness awareness in daily life. It is more than a worthy cause; it is part of what heals her.
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