My oldest sister heard voices.
Not very often, and not in ways that were threatening or scary. But it was a manifestation of a mental illness she would live with for more than 25 years, until she died.
And as she lived with it, so did the rest of our family.
Gaze around you at the grocery store or in your church today, and your eyes likely will fall upon someone who either has a mental illness or has a loved one who is mentally ill.
It’s not a crime and it’s not a choice. But still in our country and in our communities we stigmatize mental illness to the point where most people choose to keep it quiet.
And that’s shameful.
It’s shameful because your friends and neighbors don’t feel comfortable talking about it, and so may not seek the help they need for their depression or schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
It’s shameful because the silence gives rise to ignorance. It lends credibility to those who deny that mental illness is in fact a physical illness that requires treatment, and who seek to diminish the cause, deflate the numbers and devalue the lives of people who already face struggles most of us cannot begin to imagine.
It’s shameful because it fuels stereotypes, like people who are mentally ill are dangerous or drug addicts or weak. That they can just "snap out of it." That they are members of another species, rather than our brothers or sisters or children.
"It totally turns a family inside out and upside down," said Lois Henry of Scottsdale, a retired psychologist who teaches a class for the Arizona Alliance for the Mentally Ill and has a grown son who has bipolar disorder.
An estimated one in four families are dealing with some kind of mental illness, and there are nearly 18,000 seriously mentally ill people in Maricopa County alone.
"Those people cannot fight for themselves," Henry said. "Many of our mentally ill do not have family members in town, or at all."
She worries what will happen to her son after she is gone. His brother and sister will help, and she hopes to have enough money tucked away to provide him with the basics. A University of Arizona graduate, he’s able to work as long as the job is not too stressful.
Next Saturday, supporters will take part in walks nationwide to raise money for the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill. In Arizona, the 5K walk begins at 9 a.m. at the state Capitol in Phoenix, with registration at 7:30 a.m. To register as an individual or team, or to sponsor someone who’s walking, go to http://az.nami.org.
Local affiliates of the national alliance meet regularly across the Valley, offering resources and support. For more information or to find the meeting nearest you, call (602) 244-8166.
Mary Pallon of Mesa will be walking with her husband and 8-year-old daughter. Her parents in Flagstaff raised $1,400 for the walk, but are unable to participate.
"There are so many people who are fighting mental illness," Pallon said. "Yet it’s still so hidden. People don’t talk about it."
As long as we don’t talk about it, we cannot expect mental illness to receive the attention it so clearly deserves. But even if you’re not yet willing to talk the talk, you can head for the Capitol on Saturday and walk the walk.