OPINION: Families affected by mental illness need professionals

My family has more than a nodding acquaintance with mental illness.
I was a very young child – the 10th of 11 children – when my brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia in his late teens.
In those days individuals like him were often admitted to mental hospitals with no hope of ever living independently again. To escape that fate, my brother left home after high school, returning to Mississippi only six months before his death of congestive heart failure at age 60.
During the intervening years my parents heard directly from him only occasionally, letting them know he was safe and physically well. At other times they heard from mental hospitals where he had been admitted – states all across the country from Texas to Idaho, California to Maine. Needless to say, they were always anxious about his well-being.
Like central character and brilliant mathematician John Nash in the movie “A Beautiful Mind,” Will was extremely intelligent. It wouldn’t take him long after being admitted to a hospital and put on medication to demonstrate to everyone how together and rational he was, and they would discharge him. Then, as with so many people with mental illness diagnoses, he would discontinue the medication and begin the cycle all over again.
In the 1970s, civil rights lawsuits ended mandatory commitment of people with severe mental illness. Since then it has fallen to families, working in concert with mental health professionals and nonprofit support organizations, to help these family members maintain a stable life.
Unfortunately, when the mental hospitals emptied their beds after those successful lawsuits, many of the people discharged ended up homeless on the streets. The number of homeless swelled even more as soldiers returned from war shell-shocked and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
For a number of years I have been caretaker for a second brother who was diagnosed with schizophrenia after a tour in Vietnam.
Recent interactions – and frustrations – with his psychiatric treatment prompted me to write this column in hopes that more mental health professionals will respond as the National Alliance on Mental Illness has urged for many years: Listen to and consider family members who live with the person you are treating.
My brother and I have been on a months-long odyssey trying to get his medication regimen right. After a change in medications, it was apparent to his psychiatrist during one appointment in which I was present that the medication was having no effect.
When a doubling of the medication dosage similarly had no positive results, the psychiatrist continued to use it simply because it was a “newer” drug, even though one of the old standby drugs had been effective before.
Thankfully, his regular treating psychiatrist was away during the next appointment, and the psychiatrist who saw him understood the need for other action. He’s now back on the old medication that we believe is having the desired result.
I am grateful to NAMI for teaching me how to be an effective advocate for my brother, and for the many ways they support families affected by mental illness.
If you’re facing similar challenges I strongly urge you to take advantage of the Family to Family classes NAMI offers. Contact NAMI Mississippi at www.nami.org or at (601) 899-9058.

Lena Mitchell is the Daily Journal Corinth Bureau reporter. Contact her at 287-9822 or lena.mitchell@djournal.com.

Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal