When mental illness hits home

I have three sisters, all of whom I love dearly. We live in four different states, but I talk to them all the time.

Sometimes it seems there’s no distance between us as we chat on the phone incessantly. They’re the first ones I call for a good laugh, or when I just need to vent about life’s little annoyances.

But for one of my sisters, the phone calls have become like a lifeline to mental stability.

You see, my sister suffers from schizophrenia, a chronic, debilitating mental disorder. Diagnosed in her late 20s, she became part of a population that’s rapidly growing in the United States, where one in four adults now suffers from a mental illness and about one in 17 live with schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder.

At first, it was difficult to accept, coming from a culture where people with mental disorders are stigmatized. Yet, in many ways it didn’t come as a surprise. My sister is a very talented musician, with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education. But she seemed to have difficulty finding her place in the world. Instead of thriving professionally, she struggled with basic routines like getting up and going to work.

As a young adult, she began experiencing fits of uncontrollable rage, a stark contrast to her usual quiet demeanor. Then she began to have fixations that defied reality, along with paranoia and erratic behavior.

At first, it was heart-wrenching as our family watched manifestations of the illness at church and other public venues. We felt helpless, frustrated and maybe even a little embarrassed. But as we learned more about mental illness, we discovered that it is nothing to be ashamed of. My sister has a disease, just like people have cancer or diabetes. And what she needed was professional help.

Why am I sharing this story? Because July is National Minority Mental Health Month, and I bet there are many families like ours struggling with such a scenario. Some can’t get the help that they need because of insane laws that require a person to be a threat to someone or themselves before accessing treatment. No wonder our jails are filled to capacity.

It breaks my heart every time a story appears in the news about a mentally ill person becoming violent or losing his or her life unnecessarily. And I empathize with families whose tragedies may have been avoided if their loved ones had gotten the help they needed.

For my family, it has been an emotional roller coaster ride. My sister, now in her mid-50s, has never been a real threat to anyone else. But she has refused to take her medication on several occasions, and we had to jump through hoops to have her hospitalized. One mental health professional told us, “She has a right to be mentally ill if she wants to.”

These days, she has come to grips with her illness and continues to take her medication. Her contagious laugh has returned, along with all the beautiful qualities that have always made her such a special part of our lives.

But living with a mental illness is a struggle that never truly goes away. So, we take it one day at a time.