I first became aware of mental illness when I was about nine years old. I overheard my grandparents talking in hushed tones with my dad about my mother. At the time they didn’t label the behavior they were discussing with the words, “mental illness.” But even without a name, we all knew what we were seeing, and we knew someone needed to do something. I guess someone did because things calmed down in our family for a while.
The next vivid memory about mental illness I recall was when, as a young teenager, my older brother and I visited our mom toward the end of her extended stay in a psychiatric hospital. He drove the car down the interstate and then around pine-lined twisty lanes. All the way he and I talked—with clumsy curiosity and veiled anxiety—about what we might see there, how our mother might act and what it all meant. We didn’t talk much on the way back.
My awareness about mental illness continued to take shape in college through a number of random encounters. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest won five academy awards. A cousin was diagnosed with schizophrenia. One of my roommates went “off the rails” while I was away for the summer, prompting the other to hide in her room with the doors locked. It was after that I took my first psychology course.
Confident that I was well-equipped, as a post-college newlywed I began to volunteer with the local mental health association. I helped raise awareness for the needs of those dealing with mental illness in our community, totally unaware of how ill-informed I was.
Years later I discovered that those early personal experiences, random impressions from pop culture and sterile textbook jargon formed a flimsy foundation for the knowledge base I needed when my husband and I began to talk in hushed tones about how someone should do something about our young adult son’s behavior. Even though I had grown up around mental illness and tried to be educated about it, my awareness was anemic and provided little insight into how to do something for Douglas as the symptoms of bipolar disorder became unmanageable.
As I became increasingly aware of my need to understand this horrid illness that had swallowed my mother and that was now drowning my son, I also became more deeply aware of God’s willingness to grant wisdom and give direction toward resources, services and support. I became keenly aware of His abiding presence, power and peace. And I became overwhelmingly aware of His love that protected Douglas through the years when we lost touch, and then brought him back home when he was ready to begin treatment toward recovery.
May is Mental Health Month. For me it is a good time to reflect on my own journey and to be thankful for what I have learned about mental illness and about the God who gives wisdom so someone can do something.