Public figures open up about mental illness in the family

It may be the cynic in me but politicians have two keys to action:

  • It wins votes
  • It affects me

I don’t care which is the prime mover here, but a recent article in the American newspaper the Hartford Courant discusses how politicians the US have tried putting mental health on the political agenda.

Hartford Courant

As Mental Health Issues Rise, Politicians Open Up About Family Experiences

March 15, 2014|By DANIELA ALTIMARI, The Hartford Courant

Speaking to a crowd of about 100 people at a West Hartford synagogue last month, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy plowed through his usual set of talking points on jobs, the economy and the state budget.

Then, near the end of a question-and-answer session, someone in the audience asked about mental health policy and Malloy’s brisk, business-like public persona abruptly dissolved.

“By the way,” he said, pausing for a long beat, “One of my own sons suffers from mental health challenges. … I have some expertise in this area personally.”

Malloy has never been big on Oprah-style expressions of emotion. His image is that of a data-driven pragmatist who favors numbers over the politics of personal pain. After broaching the topic of his son’s struggles, he quickly retreated back to the more comfortable terrain of government policy.

Yet the Democratic governor’s decision to mention, ever so fleetingly, his son’s condition signifies a new level of openness on a topic that once was considered none of the public’s business.

In recent months, several politicians have spoken candidly about their family’s private anguish. Creigh Deeds, a state senator from Virginia who was stabbed by his mentally ill son, appeared on “60 Minutes” to press for new mental health legislation.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio offered a public statement of support after his daughter, Chiara de Blasio, detailed her struggles with depression and substance abuse in a highly-polished YouTube video.

And Tom Foley, one of the Republicans hoping to replace Malloy in the governor’s office, often alludes to a chronic mental health condition afflicting a member of his family.

Advocates for the mentally ill say a willingness to acknowledge such deeply personal matters marks an important milestone in the long quest to eliminate the stigma associated with mental illness.

“The thing about mental illness is, it’s incredibly democratic,” said Kate Mattias, executive director of the Connecticut chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “And the wider the array of people who come out and say they, or someone in their family, is dealing with a mental health challenge, the more it moves the dial in normalizing it.”

In 2009, when Malloy was still mayor of Stamford, his then-21-year-old son Ben was arrested in connection with an attempted robbery. At the time, Malloy and his wife, Cathy, released a statement saying their son suffered from an “emotional illness.”

In an interview with the New York Times shortly after their son’s arrest, the Malloys recounted their middle son’s struggle with what they said was a form of depression. They noted other high-profile political families who have grappled with similar issues, including the Kennedys and the Gores.

It was Cathy Malloy who insisted on a public statement. “I think it’s really important for us to say that this is what we’re going through,” she told the Times. “We understand that a lot of other people go through this.

Although one of Malloy’s Democratic primary opponents urged him to drop out of the gubernatorial race immediately after the incident, the crisis was scarcely mentioned in the run-up to the 2010 general election.

But that was before the Newtown school shootings brought a new focus on the need to improve services for people with mental illness. In the aftermath of that tragedy, President Obama promised “a national conversation” on mental health.

Parents of children who have experienced a mental health crisis applaud Malloy for simply acknowledging his son’s affliction.
“I know how hard it is and I commend him for being able to speak publicly about it,” said Mary Jo Andrews of West Hartford. “In some ways, we’ve all bottled it up.”

When Andrews’ daughter, now 18, was admitted to a residential psychiatric program at age 12, Andrews and her husband initially weren’t even sure they would tell their own siblings.

Andrews has since grown more comfortable talking about her daughter’s condition. With her daughter’s blessing, she joined a group of Connecticut mothers who appeared recently on “60 Minutes” to discuss the shortcomings of mental health care for children and young adults in the U.S. Creigh Deeds was featured on the same episode.

“It’s very healthy to share these stories,” Andrews said. “When our political leaders put a face on mental illness, they can be real leaders.”

Personal Insight

Mental health remains a difficult topic.

Addressing a group of gun owners in January, Foley said Malloy and the legislature should have done more to help those struggling with mental illness instead of passing a host of new gun control laws.

“I know from personal experience how little support there is here and elsewhere for families with mental health challenges,” Foley said at the time. “I would have focused on that.”

That’s as far as his public comments went. For Foley, who has packaged himself as a can-do businessman, displays of emotion have no place on the campaign trail. The issue never came up in his unsuccessful 2010 run for governor; he only mentions it now in the context of the post-Sandy Hook discussion on gun control.

“I don’t really talk about it a lot,” Foley said in a recent interview. “I consider it a private matter. I don’t want it to become a campaign issue.”

When policy issues surrounding mental health care are raised, he cites his family’s experience in passing. “I’ll only mention I understand because I have this personal experience,” he said.

Foley’s sister, three years his senior,was diagnosed with manic depression, now known as bipolar disorder, Foley said. The family placed her in the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kan., one of the nation’s premier in-patient psychiatric treatment centers.

Their mother died in 1976. “My father did what he could but he was in his 80s and then he was gone too,” Foley said.

So primary responsibility for his sister fell to Foley. “I don’t want to imply that she didn’t have good days. Twenty years ago, more than half her days were good,” Foley said. “She’s a lovely person. She and I are very close.”

Foley said he brings up his sister’s experience not to “brag” about his role as her caregiver and supporter but because it has provided him with insight into the problems faced by people with mental illness and their families.
“I almost universally find people are at a loss when they need residential care for a young or middle-aged person,” Foley said.

Foley said he knows that residential treatment is not the right choice for every patient and he is not advocating for a return of state-run institutions. But, he said, the complex patchwork of services that has replaced institutional care has many holes.

“A lot of the supports have gone away,” Foley said. “States had institutions. Those institutions were abandoned in the 1970s for a lot of good reasons, but nothing grew up to replace them.”

Foley said his family’s experience points to a need for more resources and more education. “A lot of families just don’t know what they’re dealing with,” he said. To help them, Foley proposed a public awareness campaign on the signs and symptoms of mental illness.

Malloy’s 2014 legislative agenda includes funding for expanded mental health services for young adults and mandatory mental health crisis intervention training for all Connecticut police officers.

Malloy also is proposing $2.2 million in new funding for 110 supportive housing units for people with mental illness. “That is one of the biggest things that can help people with mental illness stay in the community instead of being hospitalized,” said Kate Mattias of National Alliance on Mental Illness.

And the governor’s budget calls for spending $250,000 on an anti-stigma campaign with billboards and public service announcements to promote an “accepting environment” that encourages people with mental illnesses not to be ashamed to seek treatment.

That’s a point Malloy emphasized in his comments to the members of the synagogue a few weeks back.

“We talk about mental health in all of the wrong terminology,” he said. “So much so that we scare people from actually seeking help. That’s a problem.

“A big part of what we all have to do is … admit who we are and what we are, and who our family is and what our family is, and who our friends are and what our friends have gone through,” Malloy said. “Once we do that, I think it’s one of those paradigm shifts again.”

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