Story and photo by EMILY A. SHOWGREN
About one in four adults and one in five children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness, according to the National Institute of Mental Illness.
There are many reasons why a person develops a mental illness. There are also many examples of how the effects of a mental illness can affect relationships, especially marriage and family.
When Harmony met her future husband online, he told her he had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but it was under control.
“He said he had been in counseling for PTSD for 20 years but he had it under control and things were fine,” said Harmony, who asked that only her first name be used for safety reasons. She later found out it was not under control and he had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well.
Harmony moved from Australia to Utah and the couple decided to marry. She had two young daughters at the time. But her husband’s mental illnesses strained not only their relationship, but also the relationship with her and her daughters.
“There were times where I had to put my children second. He forced me to put him first and it pushed them away,” Harmony said.
Her daughters were so young they did not understand their stepfather had problems.
“After the divorce, they didn’t trust me for awhile. They were resentful,” she said.
Dr. Herman Peine, a licensed psychologist in Salt Lake City, said the most dangerous patients are the ones with narcissistic personalities, or people who think only of themselves. He said when he sees a narcissistic patient, he will sometimes bring in their spouse after their first meeting and tell them to “run, run, run.”
Harmony said her husband was dangerous. He abused her emotionally and psychologically most of their marriage.
“He had to be in control. He would control the money, degrade me in front of my kids and he would use his depression to control me,” Harmony said.
She said if he was not getting attention he would threaten to kill himself, overdose on pills, or cut himself. It was after a physical beating that Harmony left.
“The connections between domestic violence and mental illness are numerous and complicated,” said Dr. Melissa Galvin of the University of Alabama at Birmingham during a seminar in 2006. Galvin also said researchers at John Hopkins University found that “adolescents who see domestic violence between their parents are far more likely to suffer symptoms of clinical depression – including headaches, digestive problems, social isolation, insomnia, and thoughts of suicide.” This is an example of how mental illness affects the entire family.
A 2007 article by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) in Fort Wayne, Ind., said it is important to set boundaries in families with a person who has a mental illness.
“In a marriage where one partner is mentally ill, the well spouse must aggressively set and enforce boundaries if the family is to survive. Boundaries are absolutely vital to the survival of the family,” said Kathy Bayes, executive director of NAMI.
Something that Dr. Peine finds absolutely necessary is “to get a proper diagnosis.” Without that, the medications and other remedies are not going to work.
Sometimes if the patient feels like the medication they are on is not working, they will decide to discontinue it. Sometimes it takes family to get them back on track.
“A lot of times their family will bring them into the ER because they want the meds back,” said Dr. Dean Orton, who works in family practice and the ER in Lincoln City, Ore. “At that point [after quitting medication] they become fairly psychotic and are in the hypo-manic stage.” When it reaches that point, medication is necessary.
“Sometimes the patients who know or feel they want to hurt themselves come because they need to talk,” Orton said. “We help them get counseling — a support system. Medications are not administered immediately in that case.”
Another example in Harmony’s life dealt with medication and the abuse of it. Her husband was a drug seeker. She said he would hear about different disorders on commercials or read about them. He would go to different doctors and tell them he had symptoms related to disorders ranging from insomnia to restless legs syndrome in order to get medications. Anything he could get his hands on, he would use.
“One time I had a horrible toothache and he took me to the ER to get something for it. The doctor gave me hydrocodone. I used it a couple times but I didn’t like the way it made me feel,” Harmony said. Her husband finished it off.
Harmony said she had once filled up a garbage bag with all the medicine she found in the medicine cabinet.
“It is very common to see other drug abuse. Any mind-altering substance – illicit or legal,” Orton said.
According to the National Drug Intelligence Center, disorders like bipolar, PTSD and anti-social disorder are associated with chronic drug abuse. The National Institute of Mental Health reports that those who have anti-social disorder are at a 15.5 percent risk of drug abuse. On the other side of things, abusing drugs like ecstasy can also cause mental illness, like depression and anxiety.
However, this should not deter anyone from going on the correct medication. Peine said that getting kids diagnosed early and getting them on medication will actually lead them away from drug abuse later in life.
Children, especially those of a parent with a mental illness, are susceptible to developing a mental illness. “Young people growing up with parents dealing with emotional problems are at greater risk of having behavioral/emotional problems themselves due to genetic factors and harmful psychosocial experiences,” said Dr. Michelle D. Sherman in an article for Social Work Today. However, Sherman also said these children can develop valuable personal strengths like compassion, sensitivity, resourcefulness, strength and independence.
Sherman said making sure a child understands what his or her parent is going through is important. There are ways of helping children cope when a parent has a mental illness, like keeping a stable home environment, making sure the child knows it is not his or her fault and showing them they are loved.
Harmony, who is now divorced, is working full time and her daughters are doing well in school. “My life has been so much more peaceful since he’s been gone. My girls are more relaxed and even our dog is more relaxed and happy,” she said.