Sunday, January 03, 2010

The Mental Illness Stigma Takes a Sexist Dimension



As I myself struggle with a chronic disease of the brain best known as mental illness, I am constantly aware of discriminatory practices towards those who suffer with the same disability as I do. To make a long story short, some years back I befriended a woman who attended the same support group as I did. She and I have maintained close contact ever since then and I frequently serve as a sympathetic ear when she needs someone to talk to about how her illness complicates her daily life and complicates her understandable desire to be the best mother that she can to her kids. At times she is deeply reluctant to share with me the issues most pressing and more distressing, but today she opened up and talked at length about a matter that had been troubling her for quite some time.

My friend deals with Generalized Anxiety Disorder and depression, two conditions I struggle with myself. For many reasons, money being one of them, she's been off her meds for the past several months and is unwilling to seek further treatment. Since she has recently separated from her soon-to-be ex-husband, she is reluctant to go to a psychiatrist and be prescribed new meds because she fears losing custody of her three children. I believed her worry to be justified, but it wasn't until I did some research to bolster my argument that I realized just how commonplace a problem this is. The below passage spells out the matter in detail.


Some state laws cite mental illness as a condition that can lead to loss of custody or parental rights. Thus, parents with mental illness often avoid seeking mental health services for fear of losing custody of their children. Custody loss rates for parents with mental illness range as high as 70-80 percent, and a higher proportion of parents with serious mental illnesses lose custody of their children than parents without mental illness. Studies that have investigated this issue report that:

*Only one-third of children with a parent who has a serious mental illness are being raised by that parent.

*In New York, 16 percent of the families involved in the foster care system and 21 percent of those receiving family preservation services include a parent with a mental illness.

*Grandparents and other relatives are the most frequent caretakers if a parent is psychiatrically hospitalized, however other possible placements include voluntary or involuntary placement in foster care.[1]

The major reason states take away custody from parents with mental illness is the severity of the illness, and the absence of other competent adults in the home.[2] Although mental disability alone is insufficient to establish parental unfitness, some symptoms of mental illness, such as disorientation and adverse side effects from psychiatric medications, may demonstrate parental unfitness. A research study found that nearly 25 percent of caseworkers had filed reports of suspected child abuse or neglect concerning their clients.[3]

The loss of custody can be traumatic for a parent and can exacerbate their illness, making it more difficult for them to regain custody. If mental illness prevents a parent from protecting their child from harmful situations, the likelihood of losing custody is drastically increased.


Having mental illness is bad enough, but for women with mental illness, the repercussions are far more severe. A lethal combination of sexism and Paternalism are to blame. Recent history records the most extreme cases, instances which were blown out of proportion and sensationalized to such a degree that they tainted our understanding of brain disorders, particularly regarding women with children. The image in most peoples' minds likely flashes back to the negative publicity surrounding the Andrea Yates case, in which a mother suffering from post-partum depression and psychosis drowned her children. A second example is Dena Schlosser, who, suffering from postpartum psychosis, killed her eleven-month-old daughter believing she was sacrificing her to God. A less well known example is that of Assia Wevill, Ted Hughes' second wife, a depressive, who killed herself and her four-year-old daughter in a murder/suicide. Extreme cases like these have led many to believe that children must be uprooted and taken away from mothers who suffer from any degree of mental illness, no matter how minor. If only it were that simple. Yet again, women are deemed not responsible enough to handle their personal lives, the state (and we, by proxy), jump the gun and assume that keeping children safe is more important than understanding the crucial nuances of the situation.

I severely dislike the term "mental illness" because the phrasing makes it seem as though all brain disorders are similar. Mental illness is an umbrella term, but it is not a precise diagnosis. Brain disorders vary in severity and in their physical manifestation. Many assume that mentally ill means psychotic or schizophrenic, when those are merely the most severe forms of a vast spectrum of related, but not identical disorders. I cannot emphasize enough that many people who are treated properly with medications lead otherwise normal lives with the need for a few modest changes in lifestyle here and then as the case may be. This goes for mothers in the same way as for fathers. In being so draconian about custody rights, government overreaches, assuming a child must be protected from a parent who is likely to abuse her child.

I wish we would learn that policies implemented out of a fear of bad publicity and a resulting media firestorm have many times created major problems often more severe than the ones they've sought to address. To be fair, while specific legislation has been passed to address this matter, laws are only as effective as those who follow them and those who enforce them properly. The letter of the law does not address the stigma which exists in the minds of those who do not understand the peculiarities and particulars of a still very misunderstood and still taboo subject. To best address this travesty of justice, it will take more exposure and more visibility to bring an end to this.

2 comments:

Liberality said...

That's too bad about your friend facing such discrimination. What is her support network from her own family?

Comrade Kevin said...

Her father is dead and has been dead for many years. Her mother died last year. She does have a Grandmother who helps out with the kids, but they have a love/hate relationship at best.

She doesn't want to keep living in the small town that what remains of her family considers home, but she is in the process of getting an Associate's Degree and at the moment needs the Grandmother to cover expenses when need be and to supervise the kids when she can't.

Once she finishes up with her education, she claims she intends to take the kids to another state where she would be far happier, but for right now she's kind of in a holding pattern. I just try to keep her somewhere near sane when she calls.