Mental Illnesses are Traumatic Events

Antique photo of woman with wide eyes, dark hair, and dark clothing up to the chin.

Image: Wisconsin Death Trip, detail of a photograph by Charles Van Schaick

Mental illnesses are traumatic events, as we say in the family support groups that I attend and facilitate. That makes sense to me with what I have witnessed, but I want to know more.

I look for data on people with serious mental illness (SMI) and PTSD and if SMI causes PTSD. Sadly, I could find no data on the subject. Of course, that doesn’t mean mental illness does not cause PTSD, only that it hasn’t been studied. (Or I haven’t found the data yet.)

I can tell you that serious mental illness affects many people. In 2021, there were an estimated 14.1 million adults aged 18 or older in the United States with serious mental illness (SMI). This number represented 5.5% of all U.S. adults. Add the effects on their families and friends and the number of those affected is far greater.

I understand the trauma my mother experiences with serious mental illness. The pain she experiences may be physical, delusional, or a combination of both. Through her delusions, she experienced assaults, threats to her safety, and threats to her life. She reads the memoirs of torture victims and tells me she is being tortured like they were tortured.

I believe her. I believe her experience of her illness and that she is tortured by it.

I have seen her run and hide from someone who seemed to know her and who approached her in a friendly way. I have seen her reacting as if to someone who isn’t visible. I have seen her struck mute by her illness. I have seen her unable to stop speaking, even to sleep. I have seen her eyes wild and haunted, like out of Wisconsin Death Trip.

Treatment of people with SMI can also be traumatic. During one of my mother’s early psychotic episodes, her psychiatrist encouraged me to talk my mother into going to the hospital voluntarily, saying involuntary commitment can be traumatic and set back recovery.

For the next three days and nights, I stayed with her as she cycled through mania and more lucid states. In her mania, she said she was fine. When she came down, she said she knew that she was having a problem then, but she was fine now. Then she went back into mania again where she could not hold a conversation. There was no talking her into treatment.

Early on the fourth morning, I could not stay awake any longer. She wandered off while I was asleep. The police picked her up walking on the side of the highway and took her to the hospital.

I felt sorry for the young officer who showed up at our door. I think he was expecting some joyous relief and some excitement to go visit her. I confirmed that she was safe and where she was. Then went back to sleep and visited her when I was rested.

I remember visiting her at the hospital. Still, it is hard to remember what she was like. She was stabilized on medication and later put on long-term disability. She was never quite well again.

It is easy to prioritize a loved one’s illness over oneself when their condition is so serious, life-altering, and even life-threatening. In my mother’s case, the trauma of her experience was obvious. Her deterioration since has been extreme.

The trauma of one’s illness is real, real to them and their loved ones. It can be more than emotionally challenging and time-consuming. Relating to a mentally ill loved one can produce symptoms of pro-traumatic stress and full-blown PTSD or Complex PTSD (CPTSD).

For decades of my mother’s illness, I was disconnected from the trauma I experienced. Once I started working with a therapist specializing in treating trauma, I started to address the trauma in my experience. I was evaluated with the PCL checklist assessing symptoms of PTSD. I scored just over the threshold, where treatments for PTSD can be helpful. The treatments have been very helpful, and I am grateful.

The treatment of people with the most serious cases of PTSD and mental illness in general can and should be prioritized within our families, communities, and healthcare systems. Improving services and reducing stigma are ongoing efforts.

At the same time, there are experiences of trauma that can go undetected and untreated unless we recognize them for what they are, traumatic events.

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