From an article about Britney Spears in USA Today:
The National Alliance estimates about one in 17 Americans suffers from a serious mental illness, and mental illness affects one in five families. But as common as it is, families often are in the dark because mental illness is not on their radar the way cancer or heart problems are, Burland says.
Often, they don’t even know the symptoms.
That’s what happened to Sarah O’Brien, 30, of Takoma Park, Md., who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder 12 years ago after an incident in which she lost touch with reality. But she looks back and realizes she was exhibiting less obvious symptoms — from obsessively picking at her face to taking drugs — years before that.
Yet not even she recognized her own symptoms.
“I blamed everything on my parents or thinking I was at a horrible school,” says O’Brien, who now works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to help others with mental problems. “I was always blaming stuff on something outside myself.”
No one else recognized it “because mental illness was not on someone’s radar screen — and because there was so much stigma. To people looking in, I was probably selfish, reckless and moody. The reality was that I was suffering inside. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Once a person or one’s family recognizes a potential problem, getting help is the next step. And it’s often a difficult one.
Often the person suffering from the mental illness does not understand that she or he is sick, says Ira D. Glick, a physician and psychiatry professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine.
“If you go break your leg and run into the doctor, the doctor will put a cast on it and give you medicine for it,” Glick says. “You say, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’
“In our field, when somebody has bipolar disorder or anxiety disorder or depression or schizophrenia, what do they say? What do most people say?
‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need this treatment.’ “
That is why it is so important to have family involvement, Glick says. “We see the family as a partner in the treatment team. It’s the patient, family and doctor all working together to make a diagnosis, set goals and carry out treatment.”
But because it is so difficult under most state laws to have a person hospitalized, families often have to wait until there is a crisis, Burland says.
“You must wait until they meet the criteria for hospitalization … in most states they have to become so gravely disabled that their life is in danger,” she says. “And then you have to call the police or you have to call the crisis team at the hospital to come into your house and take your family member to the hospital. And I want to tell you that it’s one of the most traumatic events that will ever happen to you.”
The ordeal is compounded because of the stigma associated with mental illness, Burland says.
“Families say this is the only illness in the world where you don’t get a covered dish. People don’t call, don’t inquire. The cultural understanding of mental illness is either that it’s their fault for getting ill, or it’s the fault of their family.”
Families often “beat themselves up horribly,” says Judith Orloff, author of Positive Energy and a psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California-Los Angeles. “They come to blame themselves. They think it’s their fault that this person is mentally ill.”
That is why it is so important to have compassion for them.
“Try to stay away from judging so harshly,” Orloff says. “Send any positive energy or thoughts.”
For more information, go to www.nami.org.