Not so long ago I showed our 42 year-old son a video that our NAMI affiliate had made. It showed middle and high school students speaking openly about mental illness, participating in our local NAMi Walk, even doing a can drive in honor of a former star athlete at the school who had been hospitalized for years in a state hospital with schizophrenia. Our son, I’ll call him B. because he doesn’t want his name used, looked at the video and then said wistfully, “I wish they’d showed that video in school when I was a student.”
So do I! Maybe that would have made all the difference. What happened instead was our son had a psychotic break in the middle of his junior year, was hospitalized and just disappeared. No school official, guidance counselor, or teacher was willing to talk to students about what had happened to him, even though we encouraged them to do so. Confidentiality they said. So he just disappeared, no explanations given.
When B. finally got out of the hospital two months later he was even sicker than before. The antidepressant they’d put him on had made the psychosis even worse. Yes, a couple of his friends stuck by him, but most turned away, perhaps understandably. He had become a different person. And their lives were so different. They were focused on getting into college, sports, and, of course, girls. His was focused on the voices in his head and the strange perceptions that preoccupied him. I remember describing him during that period as like an old man, sitting in a rocking chair, watching the world pass him by.
But things did get better. At the age of 19 he found a good doctor and was put on a miracle drug, Clozapine, for what was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia. After four harrowing years we finally had our son back.
I have always been grateful to NAMI because it was through them that I found out about Clozapine and had the opportunity to advocate for mental health parity and mental illness education in the schools. Working for the greater good has given me strength and a purpose, and I think has helped our son as well.
It’s been more than two decades since B. has been in the hospital and although he’s taken a different path in life than we expected, he’s accepted what life has dealt him and has a great positive attitude. At the same time, sadly, he’s internalized the stigma associated with mental illness, and that’s a shame. No matter how often we say there’s nothing to be ashamed of, he watches TV and listens to the news. He knows that stigma is still deeply engrained in our culture.
But things are getting better. Now when I speak to classes and ask students if they know someone who has a mental illness or if they have a family member with a mental illness, they don’t giggle or turn around to see whose hand is raised. Regularly, in fact, someone will self identify and say, “I have a mental illness”. I wonder if things would be different for B. if he were having his first psychotic break today. One thing I know for sure…It’s time!