Tragedies put spotlight on mental illness, families

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A recent post by John Wilkens in the U-T San Diego News, features an interview with Muffy Walker, President of the International Bi-Polar Foundation. In the article, Ms. Walker details the challenges for youth with bi-polar diagnoses and their families in the midst of the national attention on the Sandy Hook tragedy.

  • They’ve watched this cycle of tragedy before, the slaughter of innocents and then the screaming headlines, the pointing fingers, the wagging tongues.

    Not many people want to talk about mental illness until somebody dies.

    But if you or a family member has a severe psychiatric disorder, you live it every minute of every day. And when somebody kills 26 people at an elementary school in Connecticut, or shoves a man in New York into the path of a moving train, or shoots five villagers in Switzerland with a rifle, you brace yourself.

    “The first thing we do is we all hold our breath and hope the person isn’t bipolar because it’s like, ‘Oh man, here we go,’ ” said Muffy Walker, a Rancho Santa Fe resident whose son has bipolar disorder.

    Here they go dealing with the stereotype that all mentally ill people are violent, even though studies show that the vast majority aren’t — and that someone who’s mentally ill is far more likely to be a victim than a perpetrator.

    Here they go dealing with the myths that mental illness is caused by bad parenting, or that the sick would get better if they just wanted to.

    And here they go dealing with the fear, however remote, that one day their child might be the one in the headlines.

    “Whenever we have one of these big tragedies, people look at the family and say, ‘Why didn’t they do something?’ ” said Karen McClurg, whose son has bipolar disorder. “Lots of the families have tried, over and over, and it’s hard to get help. I’ve had police detectives and mental health professionals tell me that the only place for the mentally ill to go to be safe is jail. I can’t begin to tell you how sad that is.”

    Walker and McClurg are among the four co-founders, all mothers of bipolar children, of the San Diego-based International Bipolar Foundation, a support group for families. They’ve been working for six years to end the stigmas surrounding mental illness — hosting lectures, publishing a free book, funding research, convincing the Girl Scouts to offer a merit badge in mental-illness awareness.

    They wish it didn’t take a horrific killing for people to pay attention to what they go through every day. Continue reading here.

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