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What Is Mental Illness?

I’m not going to front, it was a little funny to interview David Kezur, a clinical social worker at the Ackerman Institute for the Family in New York. If you knew my history with psychiatrists, you’d know I do not trust them. But he was cool and kind of changed my mind about psychiatrists. He made me feel as if I was talking to a friend. When I told him my mom puts herself in the hospital when she starts hearing voices, he said, “It sounds like your mother’s pretty smart and takes pretty good care of herself. That’s also a way of taking care of you.” That’s what I’ve always thought, and I thought no one would see that but me.

Q: What are some signs of mental illness?

A: Mental illness falls into several categories—there’s depression, anxiety and a more scary-sounding problem, which is when people become psychotic or lose touch with reality. Each has different symptoms.

We know what depression is—that’s dipping down and getting very, very sad. That’s something we all know in our lives, but when we get stuck in it for a long time it’s a problem. If you’re depressed, you could have trouble getting up in morning, lose interest in things that make you happy, or stop being attentive to your children.

Anxiety means you can’t stop feeling preoccupied or nervous.

The toughest type is when people have psychotic breaks, meaning that they break with reality. That can be very short term and brought on by intense stress, or a reaction to grief. Or it can be a deeper loss of your ability to hold on to reality and know what’s real. Then you see people seeming spaced out, hearing voices, or imagining things that aren’t there.

Q: The stories in this issue are about schizophrenia. What is schizophrenia?

A: There’s different kinds of schizophrenia. For some people, it starts when they’re in their late teens or early 20s. They seem to drift out to sea, lose touch with things, and have strange thoughts. Some begin to imagine that God is talking to them, or that they’re great figures in history, like Christ. It can be a slow disappearing or it can be extreme—sometimes people get wound up or don’t take good care of themselves.

Q: How do medications work?

A: One theory about depression is that your brain doesn’t have enough of some chemicals, so medications help restore these chemicals so the brain works better. But there’s a lot of trial and error. Here’s something a little wacked—you can start a medication, and if it causes a lot of side effects, you can take another medication, so some people take four or five medications to deal with side effects. It’s like stacking blocks around you to keep you balanced.

When people don’t take the medication regularly, they put themselves at risk for another episode or collapse. Some people don’t want to take medication, because they’re scared that the medication is going to hurt them. And some people have trouble accepting that they have to depend on medication. It can feel like a shameful thing, but when they don’t take it, life can get worse.

image by Anna Jakimiuk

Q: Can something in your life trigger a mental illness?

A: Yes, certain kinds of stress. Mental illness can be related to the environment you live in and what’s going on in your family. If there’s violence, or it’s chaotic and people don’t communicate well, that’s more stressful. People can be reasonably well glued together, but if there’s a lot of trauma—like watching somebody who you love get hurt, becoming severely ill physically, losing someone, or suffering just from being poor or dealing with the effects of racism—the traumas combine and stress gets too big.

Q: Can mental illness ever go away?

A: Some mental illness depends on the situation. Many people experience depression at some point; then there’s people who get it repeatedly. A lifelong challenge is: how are we going to keep an eye on it? People can learn what helps them, and then when they get depressed, it’s not as bad.

Q: Why might mental illness cause a parent to abuse a child?

A: Sometimes abuse is what people do when their ability to use language fails—when they don’t know how to talk about things or express their feelings, so they act out physically. The stress of being ill, and of not being able to handle your own life, unravels people.

Q: If your parent is mentally ill, does that mean you will be?

A: Research shows mental illness can be somewhat hereditary, or that growing up with a mentally ill parent can be stressful, so that can feel scary and some people get very worried. But just because you have a parent who’s schizophrenic or depressed doesn’t mean you will be.

Are you a caring adult looking for more stories to help your youth? Go to, a resource for the front-line staff in schools and community based programs to help teens who are struggling with difficult emotions.

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