Mental illnesses in parents represent a risk for children in the family. These children have a higher risk for developing mental illnesses than other children. When both parents are mentally ill, the chance is even greater that the child might become mentally ill.
The risk is particularly strong when a parent has one or more of the following: Bipolar Disorder, an anxiety disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, alcoholism or other drug abuse, or depression. Risk can be inherited from parents, through the genes.
An inconsistent, unpredictable family environment also contributes to psychiatric illness in children. Mental illness of a parent can put stress on the marriage and affect the parenting abilities of the couple, which in turn can harm the child.
Some protective factors that can decrease the risk to children include:
Knowledge that their parent(s) is ill and that they are not to blame
Help and support from family members
A stable home environment
Therapy for the child and the parent(s)
A sense of being loved by the ill parent
A naturally stable personality in the child
Positive self esteem
Inner strength and good coping skills in the child
A strong relationship with a healthy adult
Friendships, positive peer relationships
Interest in and success at school
Healthy interests outside the home for the child
Help from outside the family to improve the family environment (for example, marital psychotherapy or parenting classes)
Medical, mental health or social service professionals working with mentally ill adults need to inquire about the children and adolescents, especially about their mental health and emotional development. If there are serious concerns or questions about a child, it may be helpful to have an evaluation by a qualified mental health professional.
Individual or family psychiatric treatment can help a child toward healthy development, despite the presence of parental psychiatric illness. The child and adolescent psychiatrist can help the family work with the positive elements in the home and the natural strengths of the child. With treatment, the family can learn ways to lessen the effects of the parent’s mental illness on the child.
Unfortunately, families, professionals, and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent, and ignore the children in the family. Providing more attention and support to the children of a psychiatrically ill parent is an important consideration when treating the parent.
Stuck in the wonderful convolutions of scripture we can start a great study of Leah and her sister Rachel. These two daughters of Laban have become Jacob’s wives.
Now, we may question this polygamy when all we know is monogamy. These kind of decisions may be criticized and even outright challenged, but we will change nothing (and does it really matter)?
Jacob longs for Rachel. She is his “soul mate” and because he is so much in love, the customs and technicalities of the day somehow get by him. Because of this, he will have to take on Laban’s subtle trickery, where daughters get exchanged, and he must sort out who is who. Laban’s deception really creates a crisis. But it seems Jacob just rolls with it. I suppose deception has always been Jacob’s strong suit. (But when a deceiver gets deceived, that can’t be all bad, I suppose).
Jacob is so in love with Rachel that he works for seven years for the right to marry her. This may be a bit outrageous. But we really must weigh these issues. I believe Jacob really is a monogamist at heart (shh… don’t tell him). He can only see that one girl that he is crazy about, his true love, Rachel. But it’s Leah that I think about. Her own issues are unique. Genesis 29 explains it a bit cryptically,
“Leah’s eyes were weak, but Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance.”
I must tell you that there is confusion by commentators about the “weak eyes.” Some take it literally (as in, she in very “near-sighted,”) others who look at the original Hebrew find the words to be a bit looser and vague. They think that this is a polite way of saying she really wasn’t pretty. IDK, but I think I can gain from either interpretation.
In the long view, Leah would birth four patriarchs for Israel. But she would struggle with jealousy over her younger sister’s beauty and favor. Her pain was real, and she would hurt deeply over this.
I think I may understand Leah. She is wounded, and life requires that she live as unwanted. She sticks out as a woman of tragedy and broken hopes and dreams. She will always live as a reject. At best, she will always be a distant second, and perhaps a bit scorned and neglected for this.
I so love Leah and I do understand her.Her life is a long tragedy and very full of sadness. For the next 30-40 years she will always be a cast-off, someone who has been broken on life’s hard wheel. I look at her with a painful bit of understanding. She reminds me of being a struggler and a survivor. Her sad life is comparable to us who have to fight so hard over our own illness or handicap.
I suppose its “Leah’s eyes” that catch me. I have no idea what the issue was. But I know that she was weak, and challenged by this terrible weakness. I understand this. My own life has been “topsy-turvy” and a really hard struggle. Somehow it seems we must work through way too much. It doesn’t seem fair. But than again, we are the ones who must drink our adversity straight; and the ones who get to know special comfort.
For those of you who are confined to a ‘chair,’ and the others who must deal with mental illness. Leah should be our hero.
Those who have been betrayed by addiction, or who have felt rejected through a bitter divorce. Leah speaks to us. For she is for every loser and for failures of all stripes. But through all of our “set-backs” and messes, we must realize that God does love us– even as we weep.
We may have “Leah’s eyes,” but we also have His grace.
One more thought that might be relevant:
“When you encounter difficulties and contradictions, do not try to break them, but bend them with gentleness and time.”
NAMI’s Interviews With Danielle Steel & Kay Jamison
Last year, Steel published His Bright Light, a memoir of her son, Nick Traina, who committed suicide at age 19 after a life-long battle with bipolar disorder (manic depression). More recently, Jamison has published Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide, combining research, clinical expertise and personal experience to explore one of the world’s leading causes of death.On February 8, the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health, Human Resources, Education & Related Agencies will hold a hearing on suicide prevention that will include testimony from best-selling author Danielle Steel and Professor Kay Redfield Jamison, author of several academic and popular books on mental illness.
Interviews with Steel and Jamison have appeared in “Spotlight,” a special supplement to The Advocate, the quarterly publication of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI). Conducted by NAMI executive director Laurie Flynn, they offer a possible preview of Steel and Jamison’s testimony on Tuesday. Excerpts follow below.
NAMI’s Interview with Kay Jamison
Spotlight (Winter 1999/2000)
NAMI: What do we know about the linkage between suicide and mental illness?
Jamison: The most important thing to know is that 90 to 95 percent of suicides are associated with one of several major psychiatric illnesses: depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and personality disorders. These are obviously treatable illnesses. Another thing people don’t think about enough or emphasize enough is that because cancer and heart disease hit older people, they are seen as lethal illnesses. Because the age of onset for mental illnesses is very, very young, people don’t tend to think of mental illnesses as the potentially lethal illnesses they are. It’s important for people to understand that they have an illness to begin with and then that they get good treatment for it.
NAMI: You have spoken specifically of suicide and college students.
Jamison: Yes. Suicide is the second major killer of college aged kids. It’s the second leading killer of young people generally.
NAMI: You also have pointed out that, worldwide, suicide is the second leading killer of women between ages 15 and 45. These statistics are staggering, yet most people don’t seem to be aware of it.
Jamison: Absolutely. Across the world. There are almost two million suicides a year worldwide. I think people just don’t have any sense of the enormity of it. Suicide unfortunately has been so individualized and, because of the early suicide movement in this country, so separated from mental illness. People working in the field of suicide concentrated on existential factors and vague sorts of things, when in fact the underlying science is very clear that they’re associated with a few mental illnesses.
NAMI: Knowing what we do about illness and its treatability allows us to be able to discuss preventing suicide.
Jamison: Right. [U.S. Surgeon General] Dr. David Satcher’s emphasis has been very strong on three fronts. One is public awareness. Secondly, intervention and all that’s involved in making doctors and others more able to ask the kinds of questions needed to uncover mental illness. And then, thirdly, to support the science that’s necessary to study suicide.
NAMI: What else can policy makers and public officials do?
Jamison: I think we have to have public officials talking about it. When you have someone like Jesse Ventura out there saying these outrageous things-I think it’s really beyond the pale-we’ve got to have the president of the United States saying look we’ve got a real epidemic here, and there’s something we can do about it. People are dying from not gaining access to treatment-or from having three days in the hospital, and then going out and dying.
NAMI’s Interview with Danielle Steel
Spotlight (Winter 1999)
NAMI: “His Bright Light” is a very personal story about a very painful subject, the mental illness and death of a child. What did you hope people would learn by sharing your story?
Steel: I hoped first of all that people would come to know my son, and learn what an extraordinary person he was. I wrote the book to honor him, and to share with people what a remarkable person he was, in spite of his illness. I also wrote it to share with people the challenges we faced, so that they feel less alone and less isolated with their pain, in similar situations. I wrote it to give people hope and strength as they follow a similar path to ours.
NAMI: What did you learn from this painful tragedy?
Steel: I’m not sure yet what I learned from the tragedy, except that one can and must survive. But from his life, I learned a great deal about courage and perseverance, and love.
NAMI: Lots of people in America might be facing signs of a mental illness in one of their children. What about Nick’s behavior made you realize that it was more severe than just the normal growing pains of a child?
Steel: Nick was different. Always. His moods were more extreme. I sensed from early on, that despite his many wonderful qualities, there was something very wrong. I knew it in my gut, as I think many parents do.
NAMI: How long did it take for Nick to be diagnosed as manic-depressive and receive treatment for that condition?
Steel: Nick was not clearly diagnosed as manic depressive until he was 16, a good 12 years after we began the pursuit of the causes for his ‘differences’. He received no medication until he was 15, and did not receive the most effective medications until he was 16. A long and very painful wait for all concerned!
NAMI: Prior to knowing of Nick’s manic depression, what did mental illness mean to you? Did you associate stigma with mental illness?
Steel: I don’t think I realized, before Nick, that one could still be functional, or seemingly functional, if mentally ill. I thought of it as something totally incapacitating, and of people who were shut away. I don’t think I realized how intelligent and capable mentally ill people can still be. I’m not sure I did associate a stigma with mental illness. It just seemed like a sickness, and not necessarily a shameful one. I just thought of Nick as sick, whatever it was called, and wanted him to be cured.
NAMI: How did Nick deal with the knowledge that he had a mental illness?
Steel: For a long time, Nick himself was in denial about his illness. And eventually, he accepted it. In the last year, he told people he was manic-depressive. Before that, when he felt ‘normal’ on medications, he believed he was cured. He had a hard time accepting at first that he would be manic-depressive all his life.
NAMI: Are schools able to cope with the mental illness of a child?
Steel: In most cases, I don’t believe they are. It is a huge challenge for all to meet, and certainly hard on the other kids to have one child acting out. We were very lucky, in Nick’s high school years we finally found a wonderful school that understood the problem, accepted him as he was, and was willing to work with him in a framework he could cope with. They were remarkably flexible and creative. But for most schools, it’s asking a lot to expect them to adapt to a mentally ill child.
NAMI: If you could tell a family member who is caring for someone who is mentally ill one thing, what would that be?
Steel: Never give up. Get the best help you can. Keep trying, keep loving, keep giving, keep looking for the right answers, and love, love, love, love. Don’t listen to the words, just listen to your heart.
NAMI: What do you think support groups like NAMI can do for families coping with the mental illness of a loved one?
Steel: I think groups like NAMI can provide support, both emotional and practical—the knowledge that you are not alone. And resources, where to go, who to talk to, what works. You need all the information you can get, and it is just about impossible to do it alone.
NAMI: Stereotyping the mentally ill as violent and dangerous is pervasive in America. How do we change this perception?
Danielle: Information. Obviously there must be some mentally ill people who are violent and/or dangerous. But I suspect that most are not. Nick certainly wasn’t either of those, he was gentle, loving, smart, funny, compassionate, extremely perceptive about people, and very wise. I cannot conceive of Nick as ‘dangerous,’ although ultimately he was a danger to himself. But for the most part, I think the turmoils of the mentally ill are directed within and not without.
NAMI: What do you think the average American should know about mental illness?
Steel: I think most people should know how common it is…I also think people should know how serious it is when it goes untreated. And how potentially lethal it can be. It is vitally important to get good treatment, the right medication, and good support. If you let a bad cold turn into bronchitis and then pneumonia, without medication, it can kill you. If you do not treat serious diabetes, it can kill you. If mental illness goes untreated, it can kill you.
NAMI: We know that having “hope” is important to battling any disease. What hope do you see for people with mental illness?
Steel: I see a huge amount of hope. The medications today can give people whole, happy, productive lives. There are lots and lots of people with mental illness holding down good jobs, even with important careers, happy family lives, and doing great things. It is possible to lead a good and happy life if you are mentally ill. If those who are doing just that would speak up, it would give great hope to all those who are still groping their way along in the dark.
NAMI: What is Nick’s legacy?
Steel: Nick’s legacy is the love we had and have for him, the word we have spread of what a terrific person he was. In his lifetime, he touched countless lives, with his warmth, with his mind, with his music, with his words. Through his experiences, others have and will learn. Through the Nick Traina Foundation, hopefully we can bring help to others, in his name.