This issue of Mental Health News examines the topic “Mental Health Services for Children and Adolescents.” As children are our future, there can be no more important area of vital concern than providing for their mental health. Our topic could fill volumes, yet in the short span of this issue we have compiled several excellent articles that I believe you will find very interesting.
In this column I would like to address two issues that have concerned me for some time. One is, “Why doesn’t the mental healthcare system address the needs of divorced people with mental illness that have children in the same way they do for married people with mental illness?” The other issue concerns the use of the term “being on the dole” to describe someone who is receiving government entitlements or disability benefits when they are in need of them.
As many of you who have followed my writings know, I often draw upon my own experience as a survivor of a horrible 10-year battle with depression. My analysis of the aforementioned issues is not done with any specific research other than a thorough search of the internet and my own opinion gathered through real-life experience.
Helping Divorced Parents with Mental Illness Stay Close to Their Children
I was in my mid 30s when I became ill, a short time after several deep personal losses I had experienced within my family. One of these losses was the physical and psychological separation from my then five-year-old son following the breakup of my marriage. The other was the loss of my mother following her hard-fought battle with cancer. Unbeknownst to me was that I was not prepared to cope with such losses. It was a perfect psychological storm that was about to hit me like a hurricane whose path I could not avoid. The worst did happen, and I was thrown into a black hole that became a serious depressive illness.
Being the father of a young child and missing the closeness of living with him, combined with the heartless cruelty being dealt to me in the form of the pain of my deepening depression only made matters worse. But I was in treatment. Shouldn’t the mental health professionals that were caring for me have been able to also help me address the pain I felt from being separated from my son, and help me and my son better cope with my illness? The answer was NO. It wasn’t even on their agenda.
I found that over the many years I struggled with my illness, I was seen more as a single adult than as a divorced parent with a young son. Thankfully, my son was in counseling to help him adjust to his parent’s divorce, and I imagine that in these sessions he was also able to get support for the additional burden placed on him by my illness. However, he and I were never invited into any counseling sessions together—a monumental oversight by my team of treatment professionals. Looking back, I firmly believe that this was because of the fact that I was divorced.
A search of the internet on the subject of “When a parent has a mental illness” reveals a wealth of information about the problems that children encounter and how to help them cope when one of their parents has a mental illness. However, when you search for “When a divorced parent has a mental illness,” nothing related to that specific situation comes up at all. I find that incredibly hard to believe.
My son and I fortunately had a happy ending. When I finally received the treatment that broke the chains of my illness, my son and I were able to begin rebuilding the many years of lost time, terrible hurt, and misunderstanding about my illness that had taken place. When I began to get my life back and started this newspaper, my son was finally able to understand that my illness was not his fault or my fault and was a medical condition. It is regrettable that the mental healthcare delivery system failed to bring my son and I together into counseling where these hurts and misunderstandings could have been addressed while they were happening. A great deal of pain and suffering could have been avoided for both of us.
I believe there have been a few programs over the years that have tried to address the importance of helping parents with mental illness stay close with their children. There was one a few years ago in Ohio that I read about on the internet called Bart’s Place (http://psychservices.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/52/1/107). It was a program located at a psychiatric hospital that united and counseled young children and their hospitalized parent while they were inpatients. A little thing they did was to take photos of the parent with their child that the child could take home and the parent could keep by their bedside while in the psychiatric hospital. This is the best medicine that could be given. Unfortunately, I don’t believe Bart’s Place is still in operation today. If it or any similar programs like it do exist today, I would like to hear from these programs and feature them in Mental Health News.
The mental health care system must address the needs of divorced parents with mental illness in the same manner that they help married couples when one has or falls ill to a mental illness. Mental health reimbursement allowances must also be made by insurance companies to provide family counseling for children and their divorced parent as they do for married couples with children. This is especially needed today with the thousands of soldiers returning from the Middle East with PTSD and other serious mental health problems. Divorce rates for these brave veterans are high. There needs to be a new mindset within the mental health system that puts counseling between divorced individuals and their children high on the list of required steps in the treatment process.
The Expression “Being on the Dole” is Hurtful and Stigmatizing
According to my search of the internet, the first use of the expression “being on the dole” began around 1919 following World War I and referred to the “doling out” or “handing out” of charitable gifts of food or money. During those times the expression certainly was meant to have a humanitarian and lifesaving meaning during the horrors of that war. Today however, whenever I hear someone say, “He’s on the dole,” or “When are these people going to get off the dole,” I get a sickening feeling in my stomach because I know that today’s use of this expression is meant to stigmatize and cast the person who is receiving financial assistance in a totally negative fashion. I am especially sensitive to the use of this expression when referring to someone with a medical condition, be it physical or mental.
When I had my first bout of depression in my mid 30’s, (which I often refer to as my first breakdown), I was convinced that it was merely a normal short-term reaction to the losses I had experienced within my family. I guessed that it would pass in a few days, and at worse I would be prescribed a medication that would calm my nerves and allow me to go about my life as if nothing major had happened. Up until that point in my life, I had rarely missed a day of work, and was climbing the ladder within my career as a social worker and fundraiser for non-profit organizations. My first thoughts were that I had no time for these inconvenient feelings of depression and that I had to get back to my job in a few days. Little did I know that this first breakdown was to be the first of many that would hurl me into a life and death battle that I would endure for over 10 years and would end up destroying my life as I had once known it.
My plunge into the darkest days of my illness followed soon after my first breakdown and I quickly reached a state where I had to be hospitalized. Following my discharge from the hospital, I bravely tried to go back to work, but it was obvious by my behavior that I was not the same eager, bright, and confident man. My employer wished me well and I was soon let go from my job. Losing my job in that way was a horrible experience and over the next few years I managed to survive on my savings. I clung to the notion that getting back to work was the one thing that validated my worth as a human being—otherwise I didn’t deserve to live. In addition, my depression and inability to support myself convinced me that I was a “bad parent,” which added to the pain I felt as a divorced father.
Nine years had passed after my first breakdown and my illness had exhausted my savings, left me homeless and I was still caught in the grip of depression. It was at that point that I was fortunate to be admitted to a psychiatric teaching hospital in New York. It wasn’t fortunate, however, that I was brought in on a stretcher following my third suicide attempt. It was at this hospital where I agreed to undergo a full course of ECT, commonly known as “shock treatments.” It would be the magic bullet that brought me back to life and which I credit for saving my life. It was like being revived from being in a coma for almost 10 years. The first thing I said to my doctors when I began to come around was “I’ve got to get back to work.” “No,” they said, “You have to spend time healing before you can do that.” I realized they were right, and further realized that my resume had been left in tatters anyway, showing a 10-year lapse in employment. At the doctor’s insistence, I was told to forget about going back to the high-stress world of fundraising as a career choice. I had to start all over again and had no clue what new career I could find to support myself. It was there at that hospital that the case-management staff arranged for me to be put on Social Security Disability (SSD) and arranged for me to be placed in a supportive housing apartment. This became the safety-net which allowed me to begin the healing process I so desperately needed to succeed in my recovery—a process that the doctor’s believed would take me a number of years.
The support I received from those entitlement programs saved my life. I never wanted a hand-out from anyone, but without the aid I received I never would have made it. I remember friends and family referring to my being on this assistance as “being on the dole,” and I found this very hurtful. Having a mental illness was stigmatizing enough. Having others refer to my receiving lifesaving SSD and supportive housing as “being on the dole” just added to the hurt and shame I already felt. Let us remove this expression from our vocabulary and treat people who are bravely recovering from their illnesses with the respect they deserve. I have always thought that people who casually use stigmatizing language like this were simply ignorant and uneducated. I invite them to walk a mile in our shoes. This would surely enlighten them.
Good Luck in Your Recovery!