When I told my mother and older brother (on separate occasions, and over the telephone) that my medical team (which included a consultant psychiatrist and the lead mental health social worker for my area) thought, on top of everything else, I had Asperger’s syndrome (though I’ve never been formally tested for it) they both said literally nothing apart from ‘Oh’ and ‘Mmmm’ – they essentially stonewalled me. I do not think I am being unduly paranoid to infer from this that their unspoken message to me was something along the lines of : ‘we’re not interested – stop making excuses for your personal deficits’.
Similarly, during ten years of excruciatingly painful mental illness, including a suicide attempt that left me in a coma for five days, periods of dissociation, self-harm, excessive drinking (at one stage a bottle of whisky a day), paranoia, electroconvulsive shock therapy, hospitalizations and the maximum dose of antipsychotic medication (Seroquel, 800 mg per day), I was treated in a very different way than, say, someone with a serious physical illness might expect to be treated – neither my brother nor mother ever sent me a single get well card, I received next to no visits (indeed, my mother did not even visit me when I was in a coma, with only a fifty percent chance of survival), never had a comforting hand placed on my shoulder, and never had the seriousness of my condition acknowledged, less still an invitation to discuss what may have caused it (quite the opposite, in fact: this topic was invariably assiduously avoided).
Indeed, the last time I spoke to my mother she told me to ‘just get over [myself]’, despite the fact I had become her primary emotional carer soon after my parents divorced – well before I was a teenager.
In relation to all this, in this article I want to examine the main reasons that parents may have for denying their child’s mental illness, or for denying its severity:
1) Admitting the child/adult child has a serious mental illness might encourage other people (and they themselves) to think their parenting skills leave something to be desired
2) The child/adult child should take full responsibility for their behaviour – blaming it on mental illness is an evasion of responsibility for their own actions (sadly, this attitude prevails despite the fact that mental illness involves chemical imbalances in the brain, and sometimes structural abnormalities as well). The adoption of such an attitude serves to add feelings of intense guilt to the victim’s already intolerable emotional experience, aggravating, sometimes very seriously indeed, his/her already acute psychological suffering.
3) Parents may feel that if a child/adult child is formally diagnosed with a serious mental illness (such as Borderline Personality Disorder or schizophrenia) it could ruin his /her life, perhaps preventing him/her from securing appropriate employment, being ostracised by friends and stigmatized by society.
4) Admitting the child/adult child is seriously ill puts moral pressure on the parents to invest a lot of time in helping and supporting him/her.
Sadly, denying, minimizing, or invalidating a family member’s entirely genuine claim to be ill will almost invariably make the illness worse, which is surely in no one’s interest.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).