Just a Mother Sharing How Autism & Mental Illness has Imapcted our Family

Why Are Mental Illnesses Treated Differently Than Other Illnesses?



The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance.  What mental health needs is more sunlight, more, candor, more unashamed conversation.  ~Glenn Close

Recently, I read an article on Slate by Larry M. Lake called Comfort Food. In the article he spoke of the stark contrasting differences in the treatment his family received when his wife was diagnosed and became ill with breast cancer and when his daughter was diagnosed and became ill with bipolar.  When his wife was sick, people rallied and brought homemade dishes, offered rides, showed up at the hospital with ice-cream and so forth until his wife went into remission.  When his daughter became ill, there were no homemade meals, no offers of rides or support,  they faced the challenges of their daughters illness alone.  It  was a thought-provoking article in that it helped me to see (what I really already knew), how very different physical and mental illnesses are treated in our society.  The question begs to be asked…Why?

Over the years I have known many people who have faced challenges in overcoming mental illnesses, addictions, and or various  disorders that are mind centered.  I personally have never looked at illnesses of the brain differently than I have any other illness. The brain is an organ, as is the heart, lungs, liver, e.t.c., and at any given time these organs can develop cancer or any other numerous diseases caused by stress, exposure to toxins in our environment, or from a genetic predisposition.  All of these organs have the equal ability and potential to heal and once again become healthy from changes in lifestyle, medications,  and appropriate treatment.  Somehow though, the organ we discriminate against when it becomes ill is the brain.  Perhaps because those are the illnesses that frighten us the most and are the most misunderstood.

When people become sick with cancer, there is so much support from within ones family and outside ones family.  Recently, a very dear man, my son’s grandfather, was diagnosed with stage five cancer. It was a terrible time for all those who loved him and knew him.   During his brief illness people rallied around him much like they did for the wife in the article Comfort Food.  There were offers to drive him to and from appointments, people sat with him during Chemo, they visited him in the hospital, organized a schedule for people to bring food, and started a web page to inform others of his progress and to have others leave words of encouragement, love, and support. The support was not just for him either. it extended to those who were caring for him during this very difficult time.  They were beautiful gestures during an unthinkable time while a family dealt with an illness and sadly, a passing of someone they loved.

But what about the families of those dealing with someone who is mentally ill?  They too are making frequent trips to hospitals, doctors appointments, and specialists. Some families have to travel miles or States away when their children need to be hospitalized, often times leaving one parent at home while the other parent stays in a hotel close to the hospital for days, or even weeks at a time.  These families are exhausted, overwhelmed, frightened, and at times isolated from family and friends due to their child’s illness.

How wonderful would it be for these families to have others rally around them and occasionally bring them food because they are too exhausted to cook? How grateful would these families be to have someone come and sit with their child so they could have a night off, or for someone  to start a webpage to encourage them and their child with words of support during their difficult journey?

Families caring for a child or another individual with mental illness, are often times dealing with the same stresses as a family who is caring for a child or individual who has a physical illness such as cancer. Including, wondering how long they have with their child.  Individuals with a severe mental illness have a shorter lifespan, it is thought to be 13.5 to 32 years shorter.  According to Psychiatric Services, more than 90% of suicides are a result of a mental illness and individuals with bipolar disorder  have a 10 -20% lifetime risk for suicide. Also, people taking medications for mental illness have a greater risk for heart and liver disease, as well as other complicated physical illnesses that result in negative outcomes.

The stigma of mental illness…. the fear, shame, embarrassment,  misunderstanding, ignorance, and at times intolerance, needs to be stripped away once and for all, so that all diseases can be treated in our society as equals.  There was a time not so long ago that cancer was a misunderstood disease.  According to a Cancer.org website, in the 17 & 18 centuries people believed cancer was contagious.  The first cancer hospital in France was forced to move outside the city because people feared the disease would spread throughout the city.   Now that people have a better understanding of the terrible disease, our society works tirelessly to bring awareness, support, and funding to the cause and cure of cancer.

When I read articles such as Comfort Food it brings a sense of sadness because I can relate to what the families experiences were.  Because I am a parent of a child with a severe mental illness, I have seen first hand how differently illnesses within our own family are treated. And although it warms my heart to see the love and kindness bestowed upon those dealing with a life threatening illness, I believe that the same kindness and support should be shown to the family dealing with a mental illness. Mental illnesses can just as easily be life threatening and happen unexpectedly. It’s a fear and thought that never wanders far from a parents thoughts, wondering when or if they’ll lose their child to suicide or an adverse reaction to medication.

 In the end, Comfort Food wasn’t about the food, it was about having the same compassion, showing the same kindness, and offering the same support you would anyone who was dealing with a devastating diagnosis. Whether it’s physical or mental, it shouldn’t make a difference. The effect it has on the family living daily with the disease are the same.

“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.” 
― Mother Teresa

Comfort Food:


Author: angeliamarie44

This blog was created to share our experiences and the impact of mental illness and Autism. I believe in the importance of erasing the stigma of mental illness and for that to happen, families such as mine need to speak out, advocate, and provide the real story of what we endure daily. That includes, the struggles and the successes of our daily life and interactions with the health care system, schools, police, and society in general. Mental illness, just like cancer, diabetes, or even the flu is a medical illness and it's past time that we treat it as such. I feel our societies failure to provide treatment and support services for mentally ill individuals and denying hospital care to the mentally ill is setting a separate and unequal standard in our country that the mentally ill are somehow less deserving of medical care and being treated with the same dignity and quality care that any other person facing a medical crisis has the right too. They too have a right to a successful life free from pain and without proper care and understanding their illness could have life threatening consequences. As a mother with a child who has struggled for years with mental illness and Autism, I feel it is my path in life to raise awareness so that we might create the much needed change in this country and end the discrimination facing the millions of mentally ill. "Mental illness is an equal-opportunity illness. Every one of us is impacted by mental illness. One in five adults are dealing with this illness, and many are not seeking help because the stigma prevents that." ~Margaret Larson

6 thoughts on “Why Are Mental Illnesses Treated Differently Than Other Illnesses?

  1. I have nominated you for the Sunshine award. If you choose to accept it c/p it from my blog. If not, let me commend you on your excellent blog!

  2. Unfortunately, I do think that fear and discomfort truly are the two major obstacles in the way of understanding and mainstreaming those with mental illness. People who act out or look differently make people uncomfortable and afraid. It’s something “outside” of their normal experience…it’s not what is expected from another person and that can automatically instill fear in people. Our expectations of how others should act is taken for granted. We have expectations and expect/need them to be met. When they aren’t, we are afraid/and or uncomfortable and we don’t know how to respond, we often just want to escape from the situation. Treating a mentally ill person like any other person isn’t always possible but people often don’t even try because they don’t know how to respond. It’s a difficult situation for everyone because people are not taught, and do not have first hand experience in dealing with these situations. Unless people know someone who is mentally ill, we do not know how to act. I don’t think people are mean or thoughtless I think they are afraid. I believe that is changing somewhat, but people don’t know what to do when faced with someone they don’t understand. I think the fear and lack of understanding carries over to the entire family and that’s why they are not treated the same way as families that are dealing with other types of illness. People look away. They ignore what’s going on in an effort to make it disappear or not make the family feel as if there’s anything wrong. No one knows what to do. I think it’s that simple. No one knows what to do…how to act or what to say. Mental illness is just coming out of the medical closet and it’s new enough so that there are no rules. I think that will change and more and more people are brought into the public eye but it’s going to take a long time. And it’s also about control. People are expected to control their actions and their behavior. When someone can’t do that people walk away. No one wants to be around someone who is not in control of him/herself. It’s a natural reaction…get away because something is out of the ordinary. It means trouble, embarrassment, drawing attention to oneself and none of those things are okay. It takes awhile to change societies understanding, behavior and acceptance of new things. You are in a difficult situation and the times haven’t caught up with you yet but things really are changing and while it may not be enough…to help you and your family, perhaps the future will be a better place for those who are dealing with mental illness.

    • I couldn’t agree more with your very thoughtful response. It’s true that we as individuals feel uncomfortable with the unknown, and what we do not understand. We are slowly changing as a society, but we do have such a long way to go in erasing the stigma of mental illness. My son is currently being treated at NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health), and it was found that he had been misdiagnosed. I was so relieved when they told me that he was autistic. I just felt as though others in society would be so much more accepting of an Autism diagnosis, rather than a diagnosis of schizophrenia. In a way I felt guilty that I felt that way, because no matter what his diagnosis was, he is still the son I love, but society would have treated him so differently. Thank you for your post. It really helped to give me another perspective.

  3. Reblogged this on Colour Into Darkness: Living with Depression and commented:
    Really great blog post challenging the different reactions to physical and mental illness in society.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s