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The enduring stigma of mental illness

The Record-Eagle - 4/18/2021

Apr. 18—TRAVERSE CITY — People don't come to your door with a casserole when you are diagnosed with a mental illness.

So says Cheryl Solowiej, who has been taking care of her two brothers, both struggle with mental illness, for much of her adult life.

"You don't ever have societal support because of the stigma," Solowiej said.

Mary Brock has two adult sons with mental illness. She agrees.

"People steer clear of you because they don't want to hear about it," Brock said.

Solowiej and Brock regularly attend a weekly support group hosted by the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

They've heard some people say mental illness is a choice and those who have it should just toughen up, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, learn to fly right.

It's something that frustrates Solowiej, Brock and others in the support circle. Nobody chooses high blood pressure, diabetes or cancer, and certainly no one would choose to be mentally ill, they say.

"People are not made fun of because they have high blood pressure," said Bob White, whose family member lost a battle with severe depression.

Societal views of mental illness are changing, but they're changing very slowly, said Judy Barrett, the group's facilitator.

Barrett has two adult children who began struggling with mental illness as young teens.

"I was hoping against hope that they weren't really sick, that they were just teenagers, that this would go away, that they would grow out of it," Barrett said.

She has come to accept that's not going to happen. She and others in the group have become adept at navigating the mental health services that are available.

Even so, there is never a hospital bed when it's needed, a psychiatrist to prescribe the medications they need, nowhere for them to live.

There is also anosognosia, the symptom that interferes with a severely mentally ill person's ability to understand they are sick. It is the No. 1 reason many with severe illness — schizophrenia or bipolar disorder — do not seek help or refuse medications.

Taking care of someone with a mental illness means constantly dealing with crisis and chaos, they say. It's never knowing what's next, always waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It's putting out fires, being afraid to pick up the phone when it rings and never getting a break.

Frustration, exhaustion, anger and guilt are common.

So is grief.

"You're grieving for the life they will never have," Brock said. "They will never be the people they were destined to be."

Solowiej said her brothers were brilliant before they got sick.

"It all goes," she said. "Some of it is because they're not treated or because they're not treated consistently."

There's also love, unconditional and unending, those moments when everything is right, when the person they once were comes shining through.

"How do I do it?" Solowiej asks. "You just do. You love them."


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