When Andy began acting out and receiving poor grades at age 13, Brad and Gia assumed their son needed more discipline.
A few months later, when they found him clinging to a knife on the kitchen floor, fearful someone wanted to kill him, they assumed he suffered from a severe anxiety disorder.
And when a schoolteacher showed them a paper Andy wrote, describing how he planned to kill his parents, they began locking their bedroom door at night.
Andy's parents took him to therapists and doctors, accrued thousands of dollars in medical expenses and struggled with how to ease the pain that seemed to grow within him over time.
When Andy was 15, a psychiatrist diagnosed him with paranoid schizophrenia, a disorder that can cause hallucinations and delusions and an increased likelihood of suicide.
“It sounded like a death sentence,” Gia said. “I was heartbroken at that moment. I thought ‘My son has just been given the worst diagnosis, and there is no way he'll ever be normal again.'”
Brad, a construction manager, and Gia, who works in interior design, met at Oklahoma State University. They asked to be identified by their first names only, and “Andy” is not their son's real name.
This year, the couple's other son was granted a full scholarship to attend an Ivy League college.
Andy's future is full of questions.
A year and a half ago, Brad and Gia were terrified by that fact. It brought the Edmond couple sleepless nights, sadness and tension within their marriage.
“Thank God we were both too stubborn to give up on each other,” Brad said.
One night, the worry caused Gia to break down in sobs and drive to Crossings Community Church, in Oklahoma City, where the National Alliance on Mental Illness hosts a support group.
Brad's mother told him and Gia about NAMI after hearing about what Andy was going through. She also told him about relatives who had mental illness; a secret she kept due to the stigma associated with diseases of the brain.
The couple participated in a 12-week course called Family to Family.
“NAMI saved our marriage and my relationship with my son,” Brad said. “The best thing it does is teach families about mental illness.”
Gia and Brad admit to being ignorant about the subject before their son's diagnosis.
“We're both college graduates but you don't learn about this in college. People don't talk about it, they hide it,” Gia said.
The stigma associated with mental illness is what health care professionals like Traci Cook, NAMI Oklahoma's executive director, believe keeps people from seeking treatment.
“They are seen as scary, violent, horrible people when the reality is that they just have a disease that needs treatment,” Cook said.
Cook's daughter was diagnosed with autism and trichotillomania, a disease that prompted the urge for her to pull out her own hair, when she was 4.
She said no one is immune to mental illness.
“Everyone has a breaking point. Whether you're 5 or 105; if you live long enough you'll be in the club,” she said.
In Oklahoma, an estimated 620,473 adults have a mental illness, according to the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. Of those, 146,213 have a “serious” mental illness and an estimated 135,047 have experienced psychological stress in the past year.
The same study shows that one in every four Oklahomans suffers from a mental illness, and mental disorders are the third-leading cause of chronic disease in the state; more prevalent than heart disease, diabetes, cancer and stroke.
“If someone has the gene and on top of that has an unhealthy lifestyle that's a trigger for mental illness. If people don't think smoking and poor health affect the brain, they're kidding themselves,” Cook said.
Seventy percent of adults and 40 percent of children who need mental health treatment in the state don't receive it.
Lack of knowledge
Cook and fellow NAMI organizer DeAnn Warfel attribute these statistics to the lack of knowledge about mental illness.
One of Warfel's adopted daughters was diagnosed with obsessive compulsive disorder, general and social anxiety, mood disorder, bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, attention deficit disorder, depression and trichotillomania.
She first attempted suicide when she was 10.
Warfel thinks the laundry list of disorders is attributed to the severe abuse her daughter experienced before being adopted and a genetic inheritance from her birth mother.
“If I had to guess I would say 99 percent of children in DHS or foster homes suffer from some kind of mental illness. And I don't fault DHS or foster homes; they weren't educated,” she said.
Before Andy was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia, a faith-based therapist suggested an exorcism be performed.
“The most caring and generous people live in this state but the reality is you can't just pray this away,” Cook said. “People suffering from mental illness need treatment.”
After Andy's diagnosis, he was prescribed medication that relieves the symptoms.
He is now 16, and his disease is under control.
He visits with a psychiatrist regularly, maintains a B average in school and enjoys playing the guitar.
Most surprising to Brad and Gia is that their son “owns” his disease, talking about it regularly with them and his friends.
“He tells everyone,” Gia said with a smile. “He is the bravest person I know.”
Gia and Brad said the news they reacted to with anguish has in some ways brought their family closer together.
“It brought me back to when he was born,” Brad said. “All parents want when our children are born is for them to have all their fingers and toes. And then we start wanting more from them. Somehow down the road the fingers and toes don't matter so much anymore.”
Gia and Brad said they feel lucky to have caught Andy's disease so early in his life. They said NAMI is a vital source for a parent trying to cope with their child's mental illness.
“It taught us that mental illness is not a death sentence. The family we are now would be a lot different had we not been in NAMI,” she said.
This summer they plan to lead a NAMI support group for parents of children with possible mental disorders.
They no longer lock their door at night.
The Oklahoma chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness was founded in 1985 by family members of people living with mental illness. The grassroots organization is nonpartisan and nonprofit, offering support, education, research and advocacy for those living with mental illness and their families. NAMI offers free classes taught by trained teachers who explain the causes of mental illness, the treatments available and strategies families and friends can use to cope with their own mental illness or the mental illness of a loved one. For more information on NAMI support groups or programs, call 230-1900 or (800) 583-1264 or go to ok.nami.org.
If you go
NAMI Walks 5k fundraiser
When: May 18
Check-in time: 8 a.m.
Start time: 9:15 a.m.
Where: Stars and Stripes Park
Information: All walkers must register for the walk. For more information, call Gail Israel at 230-1930 or 819-5202 or email gail@