By Mary Palnau
I’ve often read that one of the best ways to be a mental health advocate is to share your own personal story. I’m finally ready to record my story about the mental health challenges in my family. My mother battled major depression. Three of my six brothers were diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and one fought with depression. My mother survived and lived to be almost 80. My four brothers with mental illness died between the ages of 26 and 52, and their illnesses were factors in their early deaths.
My mother’s battle with depression started soon after she raised all of us. My younger brother had just graduated high school. She always said she was just tired and couldn’t sleep well, but she started going for therapy in her early 50s. Her first three suicide attempts and hospitalizations took place when she was 55, followed by two more attempts and several hospitalizations during the next fifteen years. She diligently continued therapy and stayed on her medications. There were long stretches, up to 5 years, when she would thrive before another wave would hit her. And for the last 10 years of her life, her mental health was very stable. My father was her rock of support.
My brother Carl was six years younger than I was. In high school, he was voted most likely to succeed and was class salutatorian. Four months after graduation, I received a call from his college dorm advisor telling me that I needed to come and get him. I found him curled up in a ball in his dorm room in a full psychotic state. I took him to the University of Michigan Hospital. This was the first of many hospitalizations; he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder during this admission. He had family love and support. While he accepted his diagnosis and took on the fight to get better, it was a struggle. He was never able to return to college and had difficulty holding a job. During his last manic episode, he trespassed on some property and picked a lot of flowers. He was facing a court appointment and was scared about the outcome. (This was 1988 and long before the special court for mental health cases existed.) He died before that court appointment as a result of suicide. He was only 26. This was when I first heard about NAMI.
My brother Leo was my eldest brother. He was in his early 30s, 2 years older than I was. He was married with 3 children when he started on the roller coaster of manic-depressive episodes. Every two years he would repeat this cycle. His manic times often included psychosis and many hospitalizations. Luckily, the local police knew about his condition and would help get him to a hospital rather than a jail. His marriage fell apart, but with help from the Ford Motor Company union, he always managed to keep his job. Leo was very aware and knowledgeable about his illness, but he still went on and off his medications and self-medicated with alcohol and marijuana. During his last manic state, he decided to take an impromptu trip to the mountains of West Virginia that he loved. He left Michigan but never made it through Ohio. He died in a car accident at age 52.
My brother Roy was 3 years younger than I was. I don’t know how long Roy suffered from depression. He masked it with drinking for most of his adult life. When his marriage fell apart, he was very depressed and was hospitalized for 10 days, not nearly enough time to get securely back on his feet. He was prescribed an anti-depressant, but did not seek counseling. He believed he could get better on his own and was hoping to reconcile with his ex-wife. Within weeks, he was self-medicating again with alcohol, and within 6 months he had died as a result of suicide at age 48.
My youngest brother, John, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his mid-30s. Compared to Carl and Leo, John’s symptoms were mild. Through the years, my family was very open about talking about our bipolar history. I think John never really accepted the diagnosis for himself. Over the years, he went on and off his medication, saying they were too expensive or he didn’t need them. For most of his life, he was employed at low wage jobs without health insurance. John also battled diabetes and was hospitalized many times as a result of not monitoring this condition. When I last saw him, a week before he died, he showed signs of mania, which I think played a factor. In a manic state, likely he ignored or didn’t realize his health was declining rapidly. The cause of his death at age 51 was a heart attack from complications of diabetes.
Depression and anxiety have impacted my own mental health, especially since the year that Leo and Roy died within months of each other. I’m grateful that I’ve always reached out for support. Short-term therapy has helped me at several times in my life. I have been on an anti-depressant for 13 years now. I agree with my doctor. With my family history, staying on the medication is as important as getting the right nutrition for the rest of my life. With the help of resources from NAMI and the University of Michigan Depression Center, my friends, my family, and my husband Bob — my rock — I plan to thrive.
While mental illness has been at the core of many of my family’s hardships, it did not define us. We shared much love and joy, and many traditions. We watched our family grow into the next two generations. These adult children and their children are much more aware and knowledgeable about mental health and the role it plays in their lives and the lives of so many other families. I hope that they, too, will be advocates to fight stigma, to improve equitable mental health resources and treatment, and to advocate for the need for police training to ensure that officers have the skills to respond to situations involving people with mental illness.