Is mental illness contagious?

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May 30, 2017

I grew up in poverty, with a mother with untreated and undiagnosed bipolar illness, 5 siblings, my grandparents, and a tenant who lived in the attic.  The tenant paid rent which helped our food bill. There were 11 of us, no shower, no heat upstairs, and we had to draw a straw to line up for the bathroom. At age 19, I took legal action and forced my mother to enter a mental hospital against her free will. She never forgave me for violating her rights.  On her deathbed, I could sense her lack of trust with me. My action of institutionalizing my mother in her manic, violent, psychotic state created serious disruption in our relationship until her dying day. I can’t help but wonder if mental illness is contagious. 

As a sibling

I also have 5 siblings who have been diagnosed mental illness. Three of them have passed away. They all suffered terribly and had horrific deaths. My twin had dreadful anxiety and took medication to help eased symptoms.   My youngest brother, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, and alcoholism died at home in his bed at age 45. We have no idea the cause of his death. There was no autopsy done, however, he was held captive in his home and was unable to work and barely functioned. My oldest brother, diagnosed with bipolar disorder, psychotic features and alcoholism, died of neurosarcoid meningitis at age 51. As his health care proxy, I was responsible for institutionalizing him into three separate care facilities as his symptoms worsened.

I have an older sister, a recovering alcoholic and a suicide survivor, who struggles with PTSD and depression. My youngest sister manages her symptoms of depression and agoraphobia with medication. I have had periods of estrangement from them. To this day, I struggle with how to have an authentic and deep ongoing relationship with them. They also struggle with me too. 

As a mother

I am also the mother of a 26-year old who is living with serious and chronic mental health issues. Although his diagnosis after his first psychotic break was Bipolar disorder with psychotic features, his suicide attempt on July 28, 2016, came out of nowhere. He did not tell me, my husband, or his only sibling that he stopped his medication one month earlier. After spending two years clawing and fighting his way back from his first psychotic break, he returned to college and graduated summa cum laude with a degree in Theology. He worked full time for a nonprofit. He fell in love and moved in with his girlfriend. Boom. Crash. He stopped therapy, medication, and took a nose dive that landed him in a hospital against his free will.

Today, he stands on rocky ground. After four hospitalizations, him being homeless and begging for money, and becoming homicidal and suicidal, he checked himself into a psychiatric ward.   He has new medication and remains very isolated. My son is living at home now with us (me and his Dad, my husband). He barely talks, he refuses therapy and refuses to meet with his psychopharmacologist.  

Observations as we age

It has been 43 years since a medical team put a “diagnosis/label/language” to my mother’s illness. It was then called Manic-Depression. Now, it is called Bipolar disorder.

Sad to say, for the rest of her life, she was labeled as impaired and “moody”. My father fed her daily medicine, he kept a journal of her behavior, and every move she made was judged in some way by my father. I felt sad, guilty, and responsible for blowing the whistle. Our relationship was never, ever authentic and she hated me. My youngest sister defines it as…..”Mom never trusted you or liked you as someone who was deeply committed to our family…”

Because the Massachusetts state mental institutions have been closed, 80% of mentally ill people are housed in our prison system.  This negative issue has brought much more negative stigma to mental illness.  Things are starting to change but very slowly. 

No funding, no progress?

Because there is no funding or research on improving antipsychotic medications, the rate of noncompliance is skyrocketing.  This, again, is a result of negative stigma. If you consider the amount of money invested in heart-related medical illness, cancers, autoimmune diseases, mental illness gets less than zero funding.

The saddest and most depressing fact is the prospect for my 26-year old son. As he sees it, the interruptions on his resume caused by his mental illness make him “unemployable.” His suicide attempt was caused by the reality that he has an incurable illness, will be taking medicine the rest of his life which makes him physically sick along with other negative side effects, and he is labeled “disabled” and “ill.” These facts are true; however, when I try to develop a case filled with hope at the prospect of stigma being stamped out, medications being improved, and employers understanding – I fail! Really, how far have we come in 43 years? How is my son’s life going to be different than my mother’s? My siblings died – every day I drive home wondering…..”Will my son be dead in his bedroom when I get home?”

Is mental illness contagious?

This is what I asked my first therapist when I was 22 years old.  My twin sister had her first suicidal attempt under my watch. She was living with me in my first apartment in Boston. My older two siblings were raging alcoholics at the time and were not helpful or available for me for any support I needed. My mother was still recovering and on new medication herself. Thank goodness I had the clarity of mind to visit with a therapist. I claimed I was meeting her for “preventative medicine” since I did not want to end up like my mother or siblings. Now I know there is nothing wrong with seeing a therapist. Nothing at all.

Environmental factors may play into it, sure. But mental illness is not something you can “catch.” What is important to understand, however, is that mental illness affects everyone who comes into contact with it. Maybe we are mothers, sisters, daughters. Maybe we are caretakers of a friend or family. No matter what our relationship is with mental illness, it does affect us. 

Or is it genetic?

There is no shortage of articles out there about the linkage between genetics and mental illness. It is now commonly believed that your heredity plays into our likelihood of having a mental illness. The exact causes may not be fully understood, but that is a work in progress. Heck, even WebMD puts genetics high up on the list. Here are two other articles (here and here) that talk about the linkage between mental illness and genetics. And this just compounded my concern about “catching it”. 

What I wonder

I often wondered if growing up in a “crazy” house and having “crazy” siblings if I would one day “catch it”. Actually, what I have learned now is whether we are diagnosed ourselves or not, having close family members with mental illness affects everyone around them. I know I have challenges in setting boundaries. I am a natural caretaker, at the expense of myself, often time.

Caretakers need help, too. Often, caretakers end up in an emergency room with our loved ones to admit them. We are exhausted, distraught, depressed and in need of help ourselves. We are riddled with guilt. At least I am as a mother. My son potentially inherited this illness from my side of the family. I need and want to fix it for him. As such, I am an overprotective helicopter mother. How can he heal and build a self-sustaining life if I don’t let go? How can we reach out and help family members to be strong, capable, informed, and educated about the healthy ways they can support folks living with a lived experience of mental health challenges? I ask…How can we change the word from illness to hope?

Joanne Grady

Joanne Grady

With a degree in Organizational Behavior, Joanne had a 30-year career as a woman entrepreneur owning and managing a Staffing Firm in Boston. Currently, she pivoted her career into fundraising for vulnerable communities. She is an advocate, a public speaker, and is striving to support families and consumers affected by mental health issues.

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