People living with mental illness become visible when a crisis occurs, when ordinary life is interrupted, usually in a dramatic way, that brings with it unwanted attention that does little to solve a problem or mitigate the circumstances surrounding an incident.
Many families live with varying degrees of normalcy, depending on how you define “normal,” and they look just like everybody else. That’s because, for the most part, they live their lives each day, going to work, spending time with their families and participating in school or church activities. Just like everybody else until some crisis strikes and the carefully crafted veneer comes unglued.
The National Shrine of Our Lady of the Snows has been committed to assisting family members and mental health care workers with service providers, support group information and workshops on topics of importance to them.
In its seventh year, the shrine conference — “When Mental Illness Hits Home” — was held Aug. 22-24, bringing together experts. Topics included: self care for those who care for people with mental illness, social security and Medicaid, and crisis intervention with the police.
“This was such a blessing,” the parents of a daughter diagnosed with bipolar disorder said. Other parents, whose son was diagnosed as bipolar as a child has now had the added diagnosis of schizophrenia.
The conference gives parents like these a place to go with their questions, a list of organizations that will support them in their journey with their child.
To say that life is difficult for these families can’t begin to conceptualize what they go through as they raise a child or deal with an adult family member suffering from mental illness.
First, families fear for the child who may be shunned at school or treated differently by those outside the family. As adults, parents may begin to fear for their own safety because of the unpredictability of someone living with mental illness.
Drugs can be life-saving when people take them and life-threatening when they stop. The side effects of drugs can be problematic for those who take them, making them feel strange or uncomfortable, which may cause them to stop taking their medicine. The results, unfortunately, are often the same: crisis.
Those crises can, and often do, include calls to local police departments.
Two law enforcement professionals made presentations at the conference: Sgt. Jeremy Romo, coordinator of the St. Louis County Police Department Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) and Lt. Rob Schmidtke, coordinator of the CIT for O’Fallon.
Schmidtke described his work with the CIT as “a passion of mine. I’ve seen the frustration from officers and families.”
Since 2006 Schmidtke said PTSD is a “big issue.”
Families need to make contact with their local police department before a crisis occurs, Schmidtke said, so that they have information about the person in crisis rather than trying to get background information as the crisis unfolds.
Trained CIT officers know they need the background information, the diagnosis and the medications, and it is much better to have that before the situation escalates.
Both officers recommended family members visit the police station and meet the officers that may be called in to assist them when a crisis occurs.
In addition to intervening during a crisis, the officers said their role is to refer people to organizations that can help and advocate for the person with mental illness.
“Our first priority in a crisis is safety, everybody’s safety,” Schmidtke said. “Our last resort is an involuntary admission to a hospital.”
People with mental illness and their families wage an on-going, daily struggle to maintain an equilibrium, which means the journey lasts far longer than a day, a week, a month or a year. It’s a lifetime struggle.
“The public discussion about mental illness only lasts a short time,” Tom Smith said. “The resulting public perception of mental illness and brain disorders is that these people are dangerous.”
Smith, co-founder of the Karla Smith Foundation, helped direct the day. His daughter, Karla, died by suicide in 2003.
As parents and family members, Smith said “we know what works and what doesn’t. We know that it can be managed. We know the public perception is warped and one-sided.”
Psychiatrist Dr. Dawn Porter knows it is a “daunting task to walk with someone with mental illness.”
Dr. Porter is an outpatient psychiatrist at Gateway Regional Medical Center in Granite City.
“You have to be healthy if you intend to walk with someone with mental illness, especially someone with depression because it is so draining,” Dr. Porter said.
Dr. Porter offered different strategies for caregivers, about their needs, how to detach with love and set boundaries.
“Be mindful and objective,” she said. “You can lose yourself in the dynamic of the family. You need to recognize that guilt can play a role — survivor guilt” — because your family member has a mental disorder and you do not.
When a family member is diagnosed with mental illness, it can “consume” lives, parents said.
CIT Schmidtke said: “Mental illness is an up and down battle that nobody ever wins.”
However, with conferences, like this one, family members and mental health professionals can access people to support them in these daily battles for normalcy.
For more information about how to find help, please go to karlasmithfoundation.org.
Story and photos by LIZ QUIRIN