Friday, October 30, 2009

Family-to Family: Week 4

Note: One of our current Family-to-Family participants is writing a weekly series of her experience in NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania's 12-week class. This is her fourth post.

Week 4 of Family-to-Family presents a broad review of the scientific evidence supporting the not widely accepted view that so-called psychiatric illness are, in reality, organic brain disorders; meaning that they are every bit as much diseases without blame as other neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's, Cerebral Palsy and Epilepsy.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but what we choose to label a class of illnesses has a dramatic effect on how it's perceived by others. For instance, compare the connotations of the following terms: mental illness, psychiatric disorder, mood disorder, neurological disorder. Which type of illness do you think garners the most compassion from family members, friends, employers and healthcare providers?

Generally speaking, all of these terms are synonymous. Yet by classifying some disorders of the brain as psychiatric or mood disorders or, more commonly, mental illnesses, the medical establishment seems to be supporting the outmoded and terribly detrimental belief that these illnesses are caused by "weaknesses" of character, morality or family values. This point of view has been with us for so long and is so entrenched that even caring family members can have trouble fully internalizing the knowledge that their loved ones are not to some extent willing participants in their conditions.

Even my own beliefs, as someone who has struggled with depression, as a daughter, friend, aunt, sister and advocate of people with mental illness, were challenged by some of the research -- showing just how deeply we hold on to the conviction that people with mental illness have the ability to will ourselves well, to overcome our "shortcomings." It may be that this point of view offers us some incremental hope in the face of daunting statistics about recovery and a broken mental health system. It may also be that we need somewhere to direct our feelings of frustration, inadequacy, anger and hurt.

Whatever the reasons, the hard scientific evidence gives us the tools to further fight stigma, in our own hearts as well as in the judicial system, the healthcare and insurance industries and the general population.

For more information, visit the Family-to-Family section on NAMI Southwestern Pennsylvania's website.