No one to blame

On the lips of most individuals this week was the recent shootings that took place at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Most people wanted to know what sort of individual would commit such a crime, and more importantly, why did he first kill his mother.

Well, all of this reminds me of an incident that a friend told us about some years ago. According to the friend, while on her way to work one day she noticed that a fellow from her neighbourhood was walking behind her all the way to the bus stop. This was not unusual behaviour; what was unusual was he was always behind her.

But even this was not too disturbing until she noticed him standing both outside of her office building when leaving work and standing outside her house very late at night as if watching. So at our urgings, she decided to bring this observed behaviour to the attention of his mother who on hearing her complaint just laughed and said that “he just like” her.

Sometime later there were some complaints of bestiality in the neighbourhood and the police were called in to investigate. Although she could not confirm what or who was responsible he (the stalker) disappeared from the neighbourhood and his mother stopped speaking to everyone who lived in the area.

I also heard of another incident where a man got up in the middle of the night and started throwing stones at his elderly mother’s house. The relatives, not wanting to call in the police, decided to open the door in an effort to placate him but this did not work. Instead he started destroying the furniture and eventually outside assistance had to be sought.

When his relatives were later questioned about this behaviour, it was revealed that he showed tendencies of violent behaviour from an early age but relatives tried to hide this unusual behaviour from others, by trying in every way possible to placate him, but did not seek professional help. This final event seemed to be the last straw when he was taken away for much needed assistance.

The article this week is on the impact of mental illness on families.

Firstly, I will define mental illness. According to an Australian paper where no author or date was indicated, “Mental illness is a general term that refers to a group of illnesses” affecting the mind “in the same way that heart disease refers to a group of illnesses and disorders affecting the heart”.

The paper further explained that mental illness affected how individuals think, act, feel and above all how they interacted with others in the home and community. In most cases the term mental illness is used interchangeably with mental disorders or mental retardation and it will also apply to this article.

We often like to sit in our “ivory towers” and think that mental retardation only occurs to others so it is not our problem. In addition, when we do think of it, we like to think that (a) it is one type of illness, (b) it is the fault of others and (c) that it is controllable.

However, like other forms of illnesses there are varying degrees of mental illness. For instance, an individual can show symptoms of mental illness after experiencing certain stressors in life. Although these reactions may not be severe like other illnesses it can easily develop into more severe forms of illness if not treated.

At this stage you may be saying that you have never been mentally ill, but there are several widespread symptoms amongst our population. Take for example feelings of anxiety, fear, tension, sadness and depression. It is common for people to say that they feel depressed because of one thing or another. It is only when these feelings become so extreme that they begin to impact on the coping mechanisms of individuals that one realises how easy it is to fall prey to a mental disorder.

So how does the family cope with this sudden illness that society regards with such profound disgrace? You see, at times a person who is feeling mentally ill creates a great deal of strain and stress for family members who often experience feelings of guilt or embarrassment because they believe that they must not let others know what is happening to their “little Johnny/Jane”.

This is because an individual, who was previously very competent, has now suddenly turned into one who is unable to cope with day-to-day activities. For instance, an individual who was once happy, friendly and helpful can become one who does not find enjoyment in any activity and cannot sustain relationships. Such an individual may suddenly be unable to care for themselves (take baths or feed themselves) and may seem terrified of leaving the house.

Other symptoms of mental illness may include a sudden change in behaviour or it may be a slow progression from slight depression (feeling down) to acute psychotic episodes. The extreme situation can cause a great deal of strain on family members who may find this behaviour either threatening or confusing. In most cases, family members very often find it difficult to cope with and may resort to hiding the illness from other relatives and friends by pretending that it does not exist. Some family members may even resort to “the blame game” and may think that the individual can easily use will power to make the illness go away.

It is therefore very important that family members understand that it is unlikely that the individual who is ill can just make these symptoms disappear with just will power alone. They must realise that a mentally ill person should be treated in much the same manner as another person who is physically ill. Therefore, they need the same support and understanding as one who has heart disease.

The main thing they must remember is that no one is to blame for this illness and hence there should be no shame involved. It is important for individuals to recognise that mental illness is so wide spread that it can occur as a result of stress in the workplace, relationship breakdown, sexual abuse, unemployment, social isolation and/or the sudden death of loved ones. So anyone can suffer from mental illness at anytime, we are all vulnerable.

Finally, all is not lost. We can arm ourselves with information about mental illness which, unlike years ago, is easily available on the worldwide web. Furthermore, we can talk to any of the several mental health professionals in our midst who are easily accessible and who are quite willing to sit and explain as well as dispel any commonly held untruths/myths about the disease.

Moreover, it is suggested that seeking information and talking about it openly with relatives and friends would assist in reducing the stigma it carries and hence may encourage people to seek treatment in the early stages of the disease.

Here is wishing you all a healthy and happy Christmas and remember that there are some people who have lost their loved ones at this time and may not be finding the season as festive as others, so your support and understanding are vital. Until next time remember to put Christ in your Christmas.

* Daren Greaves is a Management & Organisational Psychology Consultant at Dwensa Incorporated. e-mail:, Phone: (246) 436-4215

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