In recent years there has been a shift in the Western world in the way that we talk about mental health. Stigma has been addressed head-on and real discussions are happening online, face-to-face, in doctor’s offices, and over the phone about mental health. People are coming forward and talking about their mental health and people are no longer living in shame for having mental health issues. It is an amazing thing to see. When I was a child, an old lady who was friends with our family told us of horrible stories of receiving electric shock therapy and abuse in mental institutes because her husband thought she was too much trouble. For today’s standards this lady probably had mental health issues that caused manias, and rather than being treated with respect, kindness, and professionalism she was abused and left disabled from her ‘treatments’. When you hear these kinds of stories you cannot blame people for wanting to hide their mental health problems. Whilst it is not as common that such ‘treatments’ happen today, the stigma of mental health tears families, relationships, and lives apart. The stigma and the fear is extremely toxic. Although we have made leaps and bounds in the way we talk about mental health, there is so much that has to be changed in the way that we treat and care for people with mental health.
One of the questions that has always plagued me is how to have real conversations about parent/child relationships when mental health issues are involved. How can we respect the voices of children who have been traumatised because of mentally ill parents, but on the other hand not perpetuate stigma surrounding mental health? Especially when there is a strong tradition of forced sterilisation of mentally ill women. Tara Westover’s memoir “Educated” is about a lot of things and many people will probably focus on the religious zealotism or even the extreme poverty and lack of general health care (not to mention the anti-vax stances in the memoir). However, for me the question that struck me to core was mental health and child/parent relationships. It hit me to the core because I have struggled to talk about this my whole life. I struggle to talk about it as I try to write this review. I struggle because I want to protect people in my family, but I also struggle with the stigma of having a ‘crazy’ parent. I struggle because I don’t want to contribute to stigma that is heaped on the mentally ill, but I also want to give a voice to my experiences. I believe that Westover’s memoir is brave in the way that it addresses these issues. And even though Westover and I do not have one-to-one experiences of what it is like to have a mentally ill parent, her feelings, her worries and concerns, her heartbreak, her trauma, her struggles are all things that I have felt in my own way. It is also something I am certain other children have experienced.
I don’t know the right way to talk about my experiences. As far as I have found, children of mentally ill parents don’t get a chance to voice their experiences like Westover did. There are so many layers to this and often times there can be degrees of guilt, manipulation, and heartbreak involved. However, I hope that Westover’s memoir is a watershed moment. I hope that it gives children the comfort that they are not alone and that they can do great things without always having the best start.
Mental illness goes beyond just affecting those inflicted with the illness. It touches everyone close to that person. Many times, and in Westover’s and my own experiences, mental health care was almost non-existent and/or extremely underfunded and therefore ineffective. The nature of some mental health issues is that it you can’t always get people to admit they need help. Sometimes the nature of the illness prevents people from getting help. Heck, some people can even play the system so well that they are dismissed by mental health professionals before being properly treated. Yet, and I hope I am stating the obvious here, we shouldn’t just lock people up who are mentally ill. Forced help is also not effective. I think these kinds of relationships between parents and children show that mental health stigma and mental health funding, support, and treatment is still lacking.
Westover’s memoir is the best memoir that I have read this year and I feel safe in saying that it will be the best memoir I will read in a long time to come. Her writing provokes so many questions about not just mental health, but also religion, family values, love, medicine, and the American dream. This is such a beautiful, bittersweet memoir. You need to read it.
Have you read “Educated”? What did the memoir make you think about? What books are you reading about mental health? As always, share the reading love.