When people are in the hospital for depression, a psychotic episode, or a need to adjust their medicines, they say they rarely get cards, flowers or visits from friends and relatives. I have known families who get no assistance from anyone, including their immediate family, when one of their children is in the hospital for a psychotic break. No one offers to babysit for the other children; no one provides transportation; no one seems to care. However, it is totally the opposite if this child is in the hospital because of a car accident, a surgery, or the treatment of cancer.
Why is this? Perhaps it is because mental illness spooks people out. People seem to view it as dark and mysterious, shrouded in stigma and shame. However, illnesses that cause dysfunction in the brain are no different from illnesses that cause kidney, heart, or thyroid dysfunction.
If hospitalizations are recurring in the life of an individual, it is common for others to begin to wonder why this person cannot seem to get it together. Do we ever question why cancer recurs? Do we blame or shun the victim and wonder why they cannot seem to get it together?
I realize it is difficult to know how to relate to a person who does not seem to be in control of their mind. When there is a death in a family, people also find it hard to relate, not knowing what to “say,” but at least they know what to “do.” They bring in food, send cards and flowers, and call with expressions of condolence. In both cases, death and a mental break, the sufferer just needs others to support them with their presence.
If a family receives no support when one of its members is in the behavioral unit at the hospital, they learn quickly to isolate from their friends and neighbors and keep silent about the matter. They build a wall around their hurt and the next time it happens, they deal with it in silence and shame. While this reaction may protect the family from feeling shunned and criticized, it serves no good purpose for the hospitalized member.
If someone has the courage to share with you about a family member’s mental health hospitalization, consider it a privilege. I encourage you to, with your whole heart, treat the person temporarily struck down by the illness and their family with the same respect you would if it were any other type of hospitalization.
On the flip side, I encourage families to share about a mental health hospitalization when it occurs, beginning with those who might understand and react appropriately with gifts of kindness. Gradually, it will become easier to step out and share with those who may not have any knowledge of mental illness and/or may not have a clue how to react. We all need to learn more about mental illness. We all need to learn how to act appropriately in messy areas that are outside our comfort zones. That builds character.
Take a risk. Share a problem, offer your support, and watch your character grow!