The NAMI Family to Family education program is a free twelve week course that helps families cope and adapt when mental illness strikes someone they love. Dr. Joyce Burland the program author included an entire 2:30 session about mental health advocacy in the course. The advocacy class comes in week eleven, the last week of instruction before class twelve, which is a party.
People often show up the first week of Family to Family choking on impossible living situations or newly crushed by significant trauma, things they’d never dreamed could happen to their own family but did—arrest, hospitalization, involuntary commitment, suicide scares, attempts, and completions. By week eleven, many have found great relief. Friendships have formed. People have realized that they are not absolutely powerless in the face of illness. They’ve bonded while telling stories they once thought no one else could ever relate to. They’ve discovered ways to let go of unfounded guilt they’d felt for not knowing what to do (“You couldn’t have known what nobody told you!”) and, most importantly perhaps, they have learned for certain that they are never never never alone against mental illness.
The advocacy class can be a kind of piss-in-your-Cherios buzz kill. We generalize with remarkable alacrity. We transform a detail that’s true in a particular situation and apply it universally to describe everyone and everything everywhere on the planet. Family to Family fills people with hope. It gives us much too feel good about, but this hope unchecked can easily slide from being a powerful motivator and become a deceptive, naïve outlook that fools us into thinking things are fine, that social awareness and understanding of mental health is on the rise everywhere, and that soon people will be getting the care, support, and information they need to overcome the challenges of mental and emotional struggle. Piss-in-your-Cherios wrong folks. Things are not getting better.
Dr. Burland very wisely anticipated the deceptive powers of new found hope when she wrote her life-altering education course. In a forceful reminder not to snooze into unrealistic optimism, she includes this particularly disheartening passage in her class on advocacy: “There are more people with serious mental illnesses in jails and prisons in America than there are in state mental institutions. There are two times as many people with brain disorders in shelters and on the street as there are in state mental hospitals.” These sobering truths ground class participants in the ugly reality that the rest of the world has changed little during the ten weeks they’ve just spent learning about psychological health.
I’d love it if everyone knew what people learn in Family to Family. They should. I dream of a world where high school students learn these things in health classes and know at 15 how to support someone with depression or bipolar disorder or schizophrenia before life teaches them the hard way through terrible, shitty experience. A low voice in me groans constant for every single parent, spouse, sibling, lover, and friend who has watched feeble and choking just not knowing what in the hell to do while madness gnawed into their love. It doesn’t have to be this way, but if we give into the sirens of empty optimism not much will change.
Dr. Burland maintains a delicate balance in her call to action. Her task is not easy. Give people too much positive and you make them naïve. Harp too often on the bad and you juice people of their motivation and enthusiasm. Burland opens her juggling act with Eleanor Roosevelt’s writing on fear: “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
I’ve been through the Family to Family course three times now, as a student, training to teach it, and as the resource assistant who helps prepare class materials. Different points in the course have stood out more prominently with each go-round. Eleanor Roosevelt's call to face doubt has been echoing strong since I heard it again in early August.
For about six months now, I’ve vaguely bounced around the idea of creating this page, to write for myself and others about my experience. I’m not entirely comfortable sharing these things. I don’t want to be a blowhard cause-head that bores everyone talking all the time about the same thing. People will think I’m self-centered if I talk about my own life that much. The emotionally charged subject will make people too uncomfortable. I might say things that hurt people. And I can’t possibly tell the world I thought seriously about killing myself for a time. That would just be unbearably shameful.
Remaining silent though is no remedy for shame. No there’s no leaving shame after all—not down here—it has to be swallowed sharp-edged and ugly, and lived with in pain, everyday. No path around it, a delusional wish to think we might evade completely its crags inside us. But after we absorb the initial jar of shame, we can control how we move on from it. For every wave of enthusiasm pushing me to speak of unpleasant things, there are plenty of doubts to hold me in check. Ultimately though, those whispering doubts are vague and poorly formed lies I tell myself wanting to believe there is an easy way out of pain and regret. There isn’t. I will feel these things whether I speak of them or not, and recognizing that inevitable fact transforms the impossible challenge into the thing I might as well try.