This past Sunday, Irish singer-songwriter Sinead O’Connor posted an apparent suicide note to her Facebook. “I have taken an overdose,” O’Connor posted, going on to give further explanation of her decision and her whereabouts. Fortunately, the singer was eventually found safe by the Irish police and later hospitalized.
O’Connor has a history with mental illness, one she has been vocal about in the past, advocating for a change in the way the media reports it and how people discuss it. According to O’Connor, she was misdiagnosed as bipolar in 2011 but was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Notably, the singer’s recent social media posts included statements directed at her family, at times accusing them of “appalling cruelty” and at others pleading for their presence. The original post indicated that being denied access to her “babies” was at the root of her distress. Later, O’Connor posted an open letter to members of her family, criticizing them for coming to the hospital while she was asleep and leaving before she awoke. O’Connor is the mother of four and has recently been in a custody battle with musician Donal Lunny over their son Shane.
The singer’s posts have prompted quite a response, each one garnering thousands of comments. Countless readers took to Facebook; some voiced support, others criticism. Understandably, many commented on O’Connor’s family and their alleged response to the scare. “Does anyone find it strange all her children have turned their back on her?” one commentator asked. “She needs her family right now,” another said. “I hope your family come to their senses and support you.” Dozens of others made similar statements: “Support her.”
First, let me stress that, coming from a family with a history of serious chronic mental illness, I appreciate the growing cultural awareness and acceptance of mental illness. Now more than ever, people are (a) acknowledging that it exists (a monumental feat in and of itself) and (b) seeking to understand it. However, the response to the events involving O’Connor this past week highlighted some lingering issues with the way that we discuss mental illness these days that merit attention. I am not a psychiatrist or anything of the sort, but my personal experiences have taught me that we ought to think twice before judging the actions of those with a mentally ill family member.
First, it is worth keeping in mind that, unlike most physical illnesses, the symptoms of mental illness are often manifested in a sufferer’s behavior. As a result, symptoms are not wholly isolated to the mentally ill but can afflict their loved ones to varying degrees. In some cases, the collateral damage is minimal; for instance, a sufferer’s depression makes it difficult for him to engage in conversation or participate in family activities. But in other cases, behavioral symptoms are far more extreme. Depending on the diagnosis, behavior can become erratic, paranoid, manipulative, unkind, or even abusive. Acceptance is important, yes, but at some point, these behaviors are unacceptable. Deciding where to draw the line and how to respond should the person in question cross it is a herculean, and often heartbreaking, task.
Perhaps more important, however, is the fact that support doesn’t always look like support. Addressing one’s own mental illness takes action. Encouraging a sufferer to take proper action against his illness isn’t always as simple as holding his hand and listening to his concerns. Yes, for most of us in the general public, that is all we can and should do. But those closest to the situation—spouses, parents, or children—often have to step back and assess whether or not their “supportive” behavior is enabling self-destructive choices or inhibiting necessary ones. In other words, sometimes support as we traditionally think of it becomes counterproductive or dangerous. A domestic violence victim trying to practice good listening and empathy with a mentally ill abuser, for instance, is an example where traditionally good relationship practices don’t apply.
In those circumstances, the best course of action—be it putting up boundaries and not tolerating certain behaviors from the mentally ill person or allowing him to face the consequences of his actions—can look harsh, unnecessary, and even heartless from the outside. Tough choices must be made, often between two less-than-ideal options. In those cases, having your decisions questioned and judged by outsiders with incomplete information is utterly devastating.
I do not pretend to know O’Connor’s situation. I do not know whether her family is taking the proper course of action. In fact, that’s entirely my point: I don’t know O’Connor’s full history or circumstances, and neither do you. And even if we did, most of us would still be unqualified to assess her or her family’s decisions.
If we want to respect mental illness and the people suffering from it, we have to recognize our own personal limitations in addressing it. Next time you find yourself questioning the actions of those dealing with mental illness, guard against the temptation to problem solve. Support them gently in a nonprescriptive way. Listen to them. Deliver food for them. Pray for them. Pray that you never experience what they’re experiencing. Because no matter how you shake it, these are sad stories. But we need to acknowledge the reality and perhaps even count our blessings for this fact, that we simply don’t know the full story.
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