When one is mentally ill, whole family may suffer

Health: Relatives of those with diagnoses like schizophrenia and manic depression face great difficulties as well.

March 18, 2001|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,Sun Staff

When Mary Whitehead heard that two policemen had been murdered on the Eastern Shore recently, she experienced a familiar feeling: hopelessness.

Francis M. Zito, the man charged in the killings, suffers from schizophrenia. For nearly 30 years, Whitehead has struggled to take care of her 60-year-old sister, who also suffers from the brain disorder that can lead to hallucinations and paranoid delusions. Whitehead lives with the fear that her sister could also turn violent.

Zito's high-profile case underscores the difficulties faced by thousands of relatives of the mentally ill, many of whom worry that tragedy could be just around the corner.

Nationally, one in five families has a mentally ill family member, according to Kate Farinholt, head of the Baltimore chapter of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. That includes not only schizophrenia but also depression and manic depression, more common disorders than schizophrenia that can be equally devastating.

With proper treatment, these illnesses can usually be controlled, Farinholt says, and only a small percentage of the mentally ill become a threat to society. Still, their families struggle under difficult conditions that at times seem out of control.

Farinholt, who has a paranoid schizophrenic sibling, is keenly aware of the emotional ups and downs of families trying to care for mentally ill relatives.

"You don't take Mental Illness 101 in school, so these things hit from nowhere," she says. "You don't get much, if any, information. No one sits down and says, 'It's not your fault.' "

Eventually, she explains, "You become isolated. People aren't reaching out to you, and you're not reaching out to them because you're embarrassed or you really don't know what to say."

The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill was created to help families by educating them, offering support groups and advocating for more funding for the mentally ill.

The group was founded in 1979, Farinholt says, and now has about 200,000 members nationwide. There are 18 chapters in Maryland, including the metropolitan Baltimore chapter, which Farinholt runs. Her organization has two full-time employees, one part-time employee and a cadre of almost 200 volunteers.

Besides advocating for state funding for the mentally ill, the group offers monthly informational meetings, workshops, support groups and a Family to Family education program, a free, intensive 12-session curriculum for family members and caregivers of people with a mental illness.

Farinholt says her organization tries to step in where hospitals, doctors and the state cannot. The group has helped people like Beatrice Richardson, the mother of a 29-year-old who suffers from schizoaffective disorder. Richardson, of Baltimore, says the organization helped her deal with extreme feelings of isolation and grief, and also helped her get disability payments for her child.

The dark days

Bette Stewart, 49, can relate to feelings of isolation and grief. For nearly three decades, she has been married to a man who has schizoaffective disorder. Although her husband, Cary, has been stable for the past 13 years, she has not forgotten the dark days when her greatest wish was that he would die.

The problems began about two months after she married, Stewart says. Her husband became irritable and irrational. He began to collect junk and scatter it around the house. He made bad business decisions and drove the family into debt. Between 1983 and 1987, he was hospitalized eight times, she says. And between hospitalizations, he would sometimes disappear for days at a time.

For many years the Stewarts were on the edge of financial ruin. They had no friends because they never knew how ill Cary would be from one day to the next. At one point, Stewart was working three part-time jobs, trying to put food on the table and care for her two young sons. Her husband was in and out of psychiatric hospitals.

"I was angry," she says. "I was just a wreck all the time."

Stewart learned about the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill 12 years into her marriage. She hated the support groups at first -- until she confessed that she wished her husband were dead. She expected everybody to yell at her. Instead, she says, they offered sympathy.

"Everybody just smiled and said, 'Well, honey, that's the way it is,' " she says. "That was a turning point."

From then on, Stewart says, she attended support groups and then became a support-group leader. For the past 15 years, she has held jobs in the mental health field.

Watching helplessly

Depression and manic depression can also have a devastating effect on family life.

Bruce and Suzie Manger, an architect and kindergarten teacher who live in Charles Village, found the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill after their teen-age daughter, Kate, became ill. Kate began to suffer from severe depression at age 12, they say, and was later diagnosed with manic depression.

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