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Being more than that

March 27th, 2012

I was first diagnosed with a mental illness when I was fourteen. I had been depressed, anxious, and experiencing hallucinations for about two years, but I started reaching out for help when I started hurting myself. When going through the tumultuous journey through many a crisis, med changes, and mood swings, it’s hard to keep people from finding out that you’re going through hell and even harder to keep them from judging you. Before I had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital (and it seemed like everyone in my entire school found out), I wasn’t very popular, but I wasn’t a target for harassment either. As soon as my peers got wind that I was the least bit different however, it was open season.

I remember my first day back to school after having been in the hospital for three weeks. My close friends had known my whereabouts while I was away and I had trusted them not to blab that information to the entire middle school, but of course being adolescents who were bent on popularity, they did. I walked the halls to my classes that day, and everyone stared. Some people quietly giggled, muttered words like “crazy” and “insane” while others just plain laughed in my face. Just weeks before I had been one of them, but in an instant, I became an outsider.

Eventually my friends started slipping away too and I pushed away the ones that remained because they just didn’t get it. Because of the stigma surrounding mental illness and people’s unwillingness to learn how it can affect you, I decided that I was a monster who was undeserving of friendship and support. If people hated me because I was something they didn’t understand, well then you’d better believe I was going to hate them too! That was my mindset for at least three years.

My parents were and remain my biggest supports, despite my father’s untimely death last April. When I wanted to quit school because I no longer wanted to be around people who couldn’t even begin to comprehend what I was going through, they pushed me to attend an alternative school instead of the overbearing charter school. When I wanted to end everything because I was convinced that my life would never get better, they sat with me for countless hours, lending me their ears and shoulders. And when I cursed myself for being mentally ill, they uttered the same mantra over and over, “You are not your mental illness.”

Out of everything– all of the medication, hospital stays, forced respite care– this stuck with me the most and I started exemplifying what my parents had etched into my skull. I was not my mental illness, but merely lived with it. This life changing realization made me view stigma in an entirely new light.

Stigma will always suck. Being judged for something that’s completely out of your control, whether it be mental illness, physical disability, gender, nationality, or anything else, will always negatively affect those who are being stigmatized. It is exactly that ignorance that makes it hard to be different and accept yourself for it. Who wants to be different when it’s not acceptable, right? What I realized after my parents continuously told me that I was not my mental illness was that I was a person. A person with a name. And feelings. And a family. And pets. And hobbies. From that point on, my resiliency has only gotten stronger, and even though stigma is a part of my life, it does not embody me.

Chandra Watts is our guest blogger.  She is a young adult who draws on her own life to change how the world sees mental illness.  She is one of the founding members of Youth MOVE Massachusetts.

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Have a little faith

March 12th, 2012

When my son was in elementary school, we decided to go back to church.  We had belonged to a church when he and his brother were very small.  I taught Sunday school, mostly for preschoolers, so I could keep an eye on him.  We were part of a small but vibrant church community and we valued that.  Then he took a nosedive into a series of mental health crises.  Getting anywhere was a challenge and church fell by the wayside.

We moved back to Massachusetts and decided to try church again.  We asked around and chose a church with a reputation for being welcoming and accepting.  My sons began Sunday school and I looked forward to an hour each week when I could be part of a supportive community.  It went pretty well the first week.  By the third week, the Sunday school teachers were coming to find me and ask if I could come help them.  My son had a hard time sitting still, they said, or focusing.  He seemed extremely fearful some of the time and “wired” at other times.  They simply had no idea what to do and felt pretty frustrated with him when their strategies didn’t work.  Welcome to my world, I thought to myself.  We lasted only a few weeks longer. 

A study published in June 2011 by Baylor University examined the relationship between mental illness and family stressors, strengths and faith practices among nearly 5,900 adults in 24 churches.   The study found that mental illness in a family member can destroy the family’s connection with their religious community and many affected families leave the church and their faith behind. The results found that 27 percent had mental illness in their families, with those families reporting double the number of stressors, such as financial strain and problems balancing work and family.  In addition, those families said support and assistance was very important to them, while their congregations seemed to overlook this need entirely.

I have continued to hear stories from families about the disconnect between what they hope for from their churches, synagogues and other faith communities and what they actually receive.  Some have been advised to discipline more, to love more, to seek a therapist (most already have) and to be patient.  Many are told that “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” Most parents, however, are not looking for advice.  They are looking for support, acceptance and a place to belong. 

A few years after I had stopped attending church with my sons, I was running a support group for parents like me.  While some had managed to stay connected with their religion, many more had had negative experiences.  One mom came week after week and described how she was trying to get her daughter confirmed (they attended Catholic church) and how it was very important to her.  She had made a hurculean effort to bring her daughter to class consistently.  She had coached her, steadied her and intervened for her.  At the end of the confirmation classes, her daughter was required to attend a weekend retreat.  The church staff said they absolutely could not oversee or administer medication and she knew her daughter couldn’t go without her meds.  At first, they wouldn’t allow her to drive out with the medications and all seemed lost.  She pushed, she insisted and ultimately was allowed to drive out each morning and evening to bring the medications.  Her daughter made it through the weekend and successfully completed the retreat.  But she had to fight to make that happen.

We’ve made strides in ensuring that children and youth with mental health needs are included in school activites and community events.  Parents find the one cub scout pack that welcomes boys with ADHD or the only pottery class that is fine with anxious girls.  However, many simply walk away from the religious community they grew up in when they find their children are not accepted and they feel judged as parents. 

Parents whose children have mental health needs want and deserve supporting, accepting and welcoming religious communities.  Here in Massachusetts, we have made a committment to providing treatment and services in the community whenever possible.  We encourage wraparound teams to identify and seek out natural supports and churches, synagogues and mosques are often used as examples.  But most places of worship need training and education for their staff and volunteers, who often hold the same stereotypes as others who don’t have a family member with mental health needs. With a better understanding of how they can help and concrete steps to make it possible for families to be part of a faith community, the connections can be strengthened and renewed.

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