“When someone is diagnosed with cancer, friends and relatives gather around them offering prayer, love and support. When someone is diagnosed or hospitalized with mental illness, no one shows up. When someone attempts suicide, no one comes.”
These words come from a book, “Don't Let Anyone Know” by Helen Cochran Coffey. Coffey's daughter, Heather, was a victim of undiagnosed and untreated borderline personality disorder.
Life looked perfect for Heather — beautiful, bright, a mother of two daughters and an excellent employee. But alcohol abuse, erratic behavior and suicide attempts were the norm behind closed doors. When employers discovered mental illness, she was fired.
Her first suicide attempt came at age 15, and there were numerous others until she killed herself at 38.
Heather's first suicide attempt was explained to her parents as just a teenager trying to get attention, but continuing suicide attempts, running away from home, decreased school performance, alcohol and drug use and health problems prompted her parents to have her committed for a mental health evaluation at age 17. She was kept for 24 hours, told that her parents were “overreacting” and given no treatment and no follow up.
Coffey writes, “Society is only allowed a superficial view of individuals with mental illness. Unlike a diagnosis of cancer or diabetes, patients and their family members don't want anyone to know! Even though it is a biological brain disorder, it lurks in the dark as something of which to be ashamed.”
Ninety percent of those who die by suicide have a diagnosable, treatable mental disorder.
Mental illnesses affect one in five families. It cannot be overcome through “will power” and is not related to a person's character or intelligence.
Helen Coffey lives with regrets and she will no longer be silent. She has written “Don't Let Anyone Know” because she is committed to advocating for better attitudes toward mental health, more accessible treatment and better education and support for family members.
She says, “A place to begin is in a NAMI Family Support Group.” The website for the Oklahoma chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness is www.namiok.org.
Charlotte Lankard is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.