Almost Every Family Has an "ism"

Updated: May 2, 2021

I saw a meme the other day that I should have saved, but I didn't, that went something to the effect: Children should be taught about mental illness and personality disorders in school.

I can't help but think how different my life might have been had I not had to learn about depression, anxiety disorders, alcoholism, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder the hard way.

I was sixteen years old when I took my first class in psychology. And although I was interested in learning about human behavior, I had not only been exposed to all of the aforementioned mental illnesses, but was grappling with a severe anxiety disorder myself that I wouldn't get treatment for nor even know the name of until I was in my mid 20's.

Unfortunately I am far from being alone. According to the American Association of Family Physicians, one out of every six children between the ages of 6 and 17 has a diagnosable mental disorder.

And that doesn't even include the family "ism's". An "ism," as I like to call them, is a dysfunctional way of interacting with each other within a family due to a family disease such as "alcoholism," "religious fanaticism," or "narcissism." Of course, there are many forms of family dysfunction whose names don't end with the "ism" suffix, like drug addiction, physical abuse, sexual abuse, etc. But for the purposes of this article, I refer to all family dysfunctions them as "ism's".

And we've all had one ism. At least one.

Of course, there's always the exception to the rule, and there are no doubt a few lucky stiffs walking around out there with no emotional scars from growing up in an ism-free home. But, from my experience, these people are rare. Plus, odds are very good that they will face their ism's later in life, perhaps with a girlfriend, boyfriend, spouse, or a child. There are very few who get away scot-free.

How do I know this? Well, number one, I've lived a long time and I have met very few people who have not suffered at the hands of an ism or two in their lives. And, number two, I worked as a social worker for over 10 years, on the crisis intervention unit and suicide hotline; a frontline worker for all of the isms, 24-7.

And I'm here to tell you, not even my fellow social workers, those holding their fingers in the dike of anarchy in our little county, necessarily had it completely together either. I know that because we pretty much sat around and gave each other free therapy between crisis calls -- most of us still recovering from the effects of our own family isms.

I recall a phrase often proclaimed by my mother, and it goes like this -- "People are nuts!"

Although my mother wasn't known for always uttering the squeaky clean truth, as years went on I have found this particular invective to be proven unusually accurate.

And it's time to tell the children. Not in my mother's words, of course, but in the proper words. We need to let them in on the little secret -- no, the BIG secret, that mental disorders are COMMON! And tell them the names: Anxiety. Depression, Bi-polar Disorder. You know that feeling you get in the pit of your stomach right before a big test or when your dad comes home drunk? That's called anxiety. You know that deep, empty sadness you've been feeling for weeks and your inability to concentrate since your dad took off? That could be depression. Remember when one of your relatives had to go to the hospital because they couldn't stop shopping online or were behaving in a dangerous way? That could be a symptom of bi-polar disorder.

So much has changed since I was in school, and fortunately the shame and stigma of mental illness isn't nearly what it was 50 or 60 years ago. We no longer need to fear talking to our children about the "isms" -- it's time to teach them about mental illness in the same way we teach them about the dangers of drugs, strangers, pedophiles, and the Internet. What we do need to fear is our children turning to drugs, strangers, pedophiles or the Internet because they don't understand what they are feeling inside or experiencing at home.

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