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Mind Health Matters: Keeping it real when it comes to family history and mental illness

My usually good natured husband was looking troubled when I returned from my shopping trip several Sundays ago. How could he have guessed about the new pair of shoes I just had to have? The shoes were far from the problem I learned as he shared this story.

Soon after I had left for an afternoon of retail consumption, a woman came to the front door. My husband didn’t recognize her but thought it might be an acquaintance ofmine. It turned out to be a relative. She lives with her family far from our home. Her visit was a surprise but a welcome one. 

Due to many years of dealing with personnel issues, my husband is a very patient and understanding listener. Our relative began to unravel a story of conspiracy, suspicion and fear. The government was invading her privacy. The lives of her family members were in danger. “They” were following her; sabotaging her car and their lives. She thought we could help her contact government officials to expose the treachery. She was agitated and couldn’t stay so she drove away within the hour.

Something is definitely wrong when a lovely person you have known for decades has such a serious personality change. There were some signs that it might be a mental illness. There was also the very real possibility there could be a physical illness at play here.

We called her husband. He confirmed that the situation was difficult but he was unable to convince her to see a doctor for a diagnosis. Such is the incredible challenge when the person has a serious brain illness and s/he is suspicious and fearful of any help. She was taking the car and driving away without warning but she had always come home. He was devastated.

I thought about their teenage child. How do you explain your mother and her fantastic thoughts at the school open house? Possibly you don’t tell her about school events. You make sure she doesn’t show up at the choir concert or debate. You don’t invite friends to your house. There are so many questions.

Later that evening, I wrote an email to the husband with information about finding the nearest chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). I urged him to attend the next support meeting and find out about the crisis services in his community.

NAMI is an organization that brings together persons with mental illness, family members and advocates to combat stigma, further understanding of brain diseases and work to improve the quality of life for persons with mental illness.  NAMI has resource and education programs like Family to Family. Even though it might be difficult to obtain a diagnosis or treatment for your family member with the brain disease, the rest of the family can be educated about the illness and acquire tools to cope.

Mental illness affects everyone in the family. You just have to attend one of the support meetings for the NAMI Portage County, the local chapter, to hear the impact. The Portage group meets the second and fourth Thursday of the month, 7 p.m., at the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County, 155 E. Main St., Kent. The meetings are free and open and you do not have to be a member to find support. There is an annual Family to Family Education program scheduled. Call me at the Mental Health & Recovery Board, 330-673-1756, ext. 207, to register for the March 2013 class.

My other advice to our relative was to talk with his daughter and not leave her in the dark. I also suggested he contact his wife’s family and share the information to see if there was a family history of mental illness. He also needs to look at his health insurance and know the mental health benefits for when his wife is ready for treatment which could be during a crisis. All are daunting, heartbreaking tasks, but ones that would help him on the path to some answers.

“Connie” talks about her family history of mental illness at the Healthy Place website. “I think there needs to be more exploration into the genetics of mental illness. I think more knowledge is better than less,” she says. You can hear her story and others at http://www.healthyplace.com/insight/audios/mental-health-experiences/

The site also has regular posts from Shawn Maxam, author of “The Bipolar Griot” blog. He has a mental illness that can be traced through several generations. He advocates being proactive and know this part of your medical history to seek treatment if needed so individuals can reach their potential as valuable community members. At the Mental Health & Recovery Board, we see that treatment works and people recover.

Shawn writes in his blog:

“It wasn’t until years later, while I was receiving treatment for my own mental illness, that I learned that my brother had been hospitalized for a mood disorder. Without information, education, awareness and context, I hadn’t been able to understand or empathize with my brother’s experience.

“In the medical community, people are often told to be aware of any physical diseases that are a part of their family’s history because illnesses like cancer or diabetes are hereditary. Proactive and preventive care is only feasible regarding our physical health when we have information, education and awareness. This practice of being informed about our family history (when possible) needs to be a part of how we engage in our own mental health care and treatment.

So if you can please engage in a bit of a historical scavenger hunt about your family mental health history. Listen to the stories and translate the information. It may show you that you aren’t the first person or the only person in your family to have a mental illness.”

You can learn more about NAMI Portage County at www.namiportagecounty.org. There are also resources at the board website, www.mental-health-recovery.org or like us on Facebook.

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Amie Cajka is the Director of Community Relations for the Mental Health & Recovery Board of Portage County.The Mental Health & Recovery Board is a county agency that fund, plans and monitors public mental health and substance abuse treatment services for Portage County residents. Last year, the board invested in services that helped more than 7,000 children, teens and adults. The board also funds the 24-hour crisis intervention services which handle more than 39,000 contacts each year. The agency is primarily funded by local levies. To contact the board, call 330-673-1756.