A Better Response to Mental Illness

The events in Newtown snapped me back to the first few months of the onset of my sister’s severe mental illness, when I learned that mental disorders were not individual diseases, but family ones, community ones. All of a sudden, I was twelve again, reading the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and locking up knives stored in a heavy-duty red toolbox in my family’s pantry, wondering why our neighbors were nowhere to be found…

There is simply no adequate explanation or response to the murder of twenty children and six teachers—the loss can never be replaced. Nothing will drown out the silence of the new graves in Newtown. But, in the aftermath, we need to take action. One step we can all take is to confront our fear of serious mental disorders, a fear that destroys individuals, families, and communities. Families who struggle to care for their mentally ill children, siblings, or parents should not have to live in the shadows. When they are no longer isolated, it makes us all safer.

The descriptions of the Lanza family’s social isolation terrified me: nobody could really say anything specific about what was going on with Adam, and his older brother Ryan hadn’t seen him in two years. I know what this isolation feels like, how dangerous it can be, and how unnecessary it is.

Growing up, I learned that when someone in your community got sick, you held a car wash to raise money, watched the kids, walked the dog, or offered rides. But more than anything, you baked hotdishes (Minnesotan for casseroles—usually involving tater tots or tuna and often accompanied by a green Jello salad). You knew that when someone in your neighborhood was in the hospital, the rest of the family needed sustenance. You got together with other neighbors and worked things out so that the family didn’t also need to think about feeding themselves. Whether it was leukemia, a stroke, a heart attack, a death—the hotdishes were a constant. Even if you just dropped it off frozen, this homemade food was a tangible reminder of the communion and community that you shared. It was different than the Eucharist celebrated on Sundays, but nevertheless, it was work of human hands that united you to the larger community.

So, when my sister was hospitalized for a mental illness, I was confused and disoriented by the absence of our neighbors. Where were the hotdishes? Mind you, she had not hurt or threatened anyone. Where was the network of support that I had seen mobilized so often before? From the DSM, I learned that her mental disorder had a biological component, just like cancer or a heart defect. Why was it being treated differently then? This community suddenly disappeared into the woodwork. Not out of malice, but out of fear, out of guilt, and out of shame. At the precise moment we needed the most support, our community withdrew, and we received the message that we should remain silent.

Somehow, whether by grace or by the innate belligerence of adolescent girls, or some combination thereof, I recognized that the absence of hotdishes was complete and total BS, and I made the decision to actively reject the rule of silence. (While I independently named this the “disappearing hotdish phenomenon” at the time, many others have put nearly the same words on this common community response.) This led to some awkward situations, notably when I confronted high school classmates about their off-handed use of the word “crazy.” But by college, it started to bear fruit. I didn’t hesitate to tell friends about this aspect of my life. So when the sister of one of my best friends started displaying signs of the same illness my sister had, she already knew that she could talk to me without any hesitation. She was a vegetarian, there was no oven, and we were pulling all-nighters, so I made her coffee instead of a hotdish.

Today, the red toolbox is long gone. I am thankful that my sister’s first mental health care team was spectacular, simultaneously making her and us aware of the seriousness of her disease—we locked up the knives not because she had ever shown signs of violence, but because that was just what you did with a teenager diagnosed with this disease and not yet stable—and emphasizing that this was a disease that was treatable with patience, medication, and continual support. No judgment, just a simple living out of the oath they took as doctors. Many years later, I am in constant awe of how my sister has fully embraced the life that has been given to her, limitations and all. And I am in awe of the way my mother has continued to help her through each and every day of her life.

But I keep wondering how things might have been different if Adam’s struggles were not so thoroughly hidden? If someone had known the family well enough to pick up on warning signs? If Nancy had not been taught by our society to keep her challenges hidden? In her essay “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother,” Liza Long writes of the tremendous difficulty of obtaining adequate mental health care for children. Improvements to the overall mental health system will take some time. But we can start to end the silence surrounding mental disorders today so that families no longer feel ashamed to ask for help.

As a Church, we can start with hotdishes, or the regional variant thereof. As the Body of Christ, we are called to take care of one another, including those who are broken through the challenges of mental disorders. One way we can do this is to explicitly welcome families struggling with mental disorders into our parishioner-to-parishioner meal ministries. Parishioners know that they can get a homemade meal brought to them if they are recovering from cancer or a major surgery or are welcoming a new baby. What if we advertised that those recovering from schizophrenia, or those that are exhausted from working full time, visiting their child in the psychiatric hospital, and taking care of their other children should also contact us? Many of us feed people with mental disorders living on the streets of our cities. What if we start feeding the men, women, and children, worn down by the challenges of living with mental disorders, sitting in the pews next to us?

We can make this a reality through dialogue with our pastors, parish councils, and all parish staff and volunteers, creatively channeling the existing generosity of our parish communities in a new way.

* To be clear, Adam Lanza’s mental disorder, described by many family members and friends as Asperger’s, did not cause him to become a mass murderer. It is obscene to suggest this—because it is factually wrong that Asperger’s makes people violent; because it further engenders prejudice against an already cruelly treated group; and because all people, no matter their circumstances, are ultimately morally responsible for their actions.