Many of our families have someone—a brother, a sister, an aunt, an uncle, a cousin—who seems to behave a little differently from everyone else. Maybe they always seem to be saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, embarrassing you in front of other family members or friends. Maybe they all too often seem despondent, sad, and withdrawn, unable to cope with everyday life. If a child, their constant hyperactivity makes them a real handful to deal with and interferes with everyday activities at school and home.
What may someone suffering from a mental illness look like? They may have thoughts or behaviors that appear out of touch with reality. They may be engaging in very impulsive, risky, or dangerous acts. There may be an addiction to drugs or alcohol. These are just a few examples. The list of possible behaviors and symptoms is unfortunately long.
There are myriad ways in which individuals with mental illnesses, diagnosed or not, can affect those who love and care for them. And there are just as many ways in which we can react to their behaviors. We can call them quirky or odd and leave it at that. We can place blame or be judgmental. We can run ourselves ragged trying to find a “cure” for what ails them or making excuses for their behaviors.
Oftentimes we take the path of least resistance—we simply ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. This is a route frequently taken due to the stigma of mental illness in our society. Many would rather let their loved ones go untreated than admit they might have a mental illness. But where does this get them in the end? People with untreated mental illnesses make up one third of the nation’s homeless population and 16 percent of inmates in our jails and prisons. They are more likely to be victimized—robbed, raped, even murdered—and the crimes against them largely go unreported, because who would believe them anyway?
On the other hand, a Department of Justice study found that 4.3 percent of homicides were committed by people with histories of untreated mental illness, and a MacArthur Foundation study found that individuals with mental illness committed twice as many violent acts just prior to being admitted to hospitals and during periods when they were unmedicated. Posthospitalization, the study showed that rate dropped by 50 percent. Still, up to 54 percent of individuals with serious mental illnesses receive no treatment; of those who do receive treatment, 46 percent are off their medications only nine months later.
What does this mean in the big picture? The longer a person with a mental illness goes untreated, the less able they may be to achieve any sort of long-term recovery. Study after study has shown that the longer one waits to begin treatment, the greater the severity of the mental illness becomes, and the more difficult it becomes to combat. Conversely, early treatment consistently leads to much more positive outcomes.
These statistics and facts paint a bleak picture—but this is where you come in. Knowledge is power. Being aware and informed is the first step in helping a loved one or family member get the proper treatment they need to begin the road to recovery and emotional wellness. Armed with the knowledge of clear and factual information, you will be able to begin the process of helping your loved one. Change will not happen overnight; recovery is a process that is a different journey for each person. The most important thing is that you all hang in there—that you let your loved one know that you are with them for the long haul, through the good and the bad, no matter what the outcome. Our goal is that this book will give you the reassurance and information you need to do just that.