Reader's View, mental illness: With mental health, we need more talk, less stigma

May 18, 2013 

Words have power. On Dec. 14, 2012, two days after my 13-year-old son was admitted to an acute care mental hospital, 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot his mother, then killed 20 first-graders, six brave educators, and himself.

That day, I posted an essay to my formerly anonymous mommy blog, The Anarchist Soccer Mom, in which I admitted my true feelings of helplessness about my son's condition:

This problem is too big for me to handle on my own. Sometimes there are no good options. So you just pray for grace and trust that in hindsight, it will all make sense.

I am sharing this story because I am Adam Lanza's mother. I am Dylan Klebold's and Eric Harris' mothers. I am James Holmes' mother. I am Jared Loughner's mother. I am Seung-Hui Cho's mother. And these boys - and their mothers - needed help. In the wake of another horrific national tragedy, it's easy to talk about guns. But it's time to talk about mental illness.

The Internet response to my blog post was overwhelming. The reprint on Huffpost (which picked the story up from our local Blue Review) received 1.2 million likes on Facebook and more than 15,000 comments. Months later, people are still talking about it. Many parents who read my blog understood my anguish: "You told my story!" was by far the most common response.

Yet I quickly learned why so many parents are afraid to speak out. Stigma and shame still silence this much-needed conversation. Though I respect my critics' right to be concerned with privacy, I've realized something: When we talk about mental health, the word "privacy" is actually a code that means "stigma." Privacy comes from the Latin word privus, meaning "alone." It has the same root as privare, which means to rob or steal. That's how I have felt as a parent of a child with mental illness. I have felt alone. And I have felt like my child was stolen from me.

When Carolyn Holley, a local journalist I respect and admire, interviewed me about the backlash I experienced, she asked me a question that I was finally prepared to answer: "Aren't you concerned about the stigma for your son?"

"No, I am not," I replied. That response was liberating in ways that only people who have shared my journey can completely understand. I am not ashamed to be the parent of a son with mental illness. I am not ashamed to admit that we need help. I am not ashamed to speak up for my child.

You shouldn't be ashamed, either.

We are not alone. To date, thousands of people have contacted me to share their own struggles and fears. I realized that far from being alone in my initial response to the Sandy Hook shooting, I was a member of a desperate community of parents, social workers, police officers, teachers and principals, all of whom are struggling to deal with the same challenges my son and I face, with increasingly limited resources and options.

It's easy to blame yourself when your child is suffering. But when self-blame leads to shame and silence, our children, families and communities suffer. This May, think about the word stigma and what it means to you. Then think about what you can do to embrace and accept the people in your life who have mental illness. By telling our stories, by speaking up for our children, we can find meaningful solutions. It's time to talk.

Liza Long is a Boise writer and mother of four children.

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