Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Bring Change 2 Mind

Mental illness as a family illness

I have a pretty basic process for generating blog topics: If I hear about something suicide prevention-related from a friend or colleague, plus it has coverage in a media outlet, it's pretty much guaranteed to make it onto the blog. That was the case with the "Bring Change 2 Mind" campaign. It's the one with TV commercials featuring people, both celebrities and not, wearing t-shirts that identify their relationship to mental illness, either as a person who has experienced mental illness (the shirts name the illness, such as "bipolar" or "post-traumatic stress disorder") or as a family member ("mom" or "sister").

Elizabeth Cooney's article in the Boston Globe does a great job of explaining the why's and how's of the campaign's development, so I'd encourage you to read that article to find out more, and to check out the campaign's website. To briefly summarize, the campaign's goal is to decrease stigma about mental illness by getting people talking about their own experiences and those of the people they love.

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When I sat down to write this post, I wasn't sure if it would involve more than me bringing attention to the campaign and to Cooney's article. Then I clicked through to the comments under the online version of the article.

As a person who has dealt with mental illness in my family, I've darkly joked about making a t-shirt for myself that says "My dad killed himself when I was 8," as I think it would offer a lot of explanation for why I am who I am now. I'm glad that those involved with this campaign didn't make my t-shirt; a "daughter" one would do just fine.  (Please click through to this post to read my original blog entry about my father's death.)

So, with both my professional and personal hats on, a couple comments really made me think:

"Mental illness is a family illness. The medical community would never think to treat someone with an intense physical illness such as cancer or a heart attack or serious diabetes without involving the family - why are mental illnesses and mood disorders shrouded in secrecy?"

As a social worker, I thought this comment was very interesting - often mental health practitioners do not share information about treatment with the family of a client because of confidentiality, and I can imagine that family members can feel that they don't know how treatment is progressing if the person in treatment doesn't share information. From my own family's experience, I know that mental illness is a family illness - the effects are not just on the person who experiences the illness directly, but on all those connected to that person. I appreciated the frame this commenter offered.

"I was recently re-diagnosed with bipolar disorder and I am embracing it today I find my diagnosis a gift today instead of a hindrance and a beginning to a new journey on life to me. This article really touched me."

My heart was quite literally warmed by reading this comment. Diagnoses are not often embraced, but more often wrestled with; imagine if, as it has for this person, a diagnosis created a path for a journey.

Other comments did not warm my heart. I'm a big fan of conspiracy theories, but I can't get behind people who think that promoting awareness about mental illness is, conspiratorially, about promoting Big Pharma.

If you've ever experienced mental illness yourself or lived with someone with mental illness, you know that, for starters, medication is not a pleasant addition to a daily routine. Though medication can be very helpful and truly change the lives of people experiencing mental illness, there are certainly downsides that are unrelated to any profit pharmaceutical companies may earn. Every medication has side effects, some of which may be perceived to be worse than the symptoms of the illness itself.

For example, some people who are treated with Lithium for bipolar illness feel absolutely emotionally dulled, which can be more intolerable than the highs and lows they experience off the medication. On a smaller scale, some medications cause dry mouth, that, aside from being creating the sensation of being ridiculously, unquenchably thirsty, can contribute to oral health problems, which can be expensive to treat.

Medicating mental illness is complicated, and I suppose I resent those who try to simplify it by calling it "bad" and hiding behind a political argument.

So, is the "Bring Change 2 Mind" campaign, with its goal of getting people talking openly and without shame about mental illness, "bad" or "good"? The health communication geek in me says, "Please focus your objectives - what is the campaign hoping to help people do? How will you measure change?" But, there's another part of me, a little 8-year-old girl, who says, "Thanks for this campaign. Thanks for making it okay for me to say what happened in my family."

Copyright 2010 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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