The Sad Little Secret: Mental Illness

Sep 8, 2012 | 2012 Articles, Mental Health, Muffy Walker

by Muffy Walker, MSN, MBA

As we approach National Suicide Prevention Week September 9-15, and World Suicide Prevention Day September 10, we wanted to share some articles dealing with the issue of suicide and mental health. So we share with you this article by Muffy Walker of the International BiPolar Foundation about the stigma of mental illness & how suicide touched her life, and an interview with To Write Love On Her Arms. Learn more about what you can do to make a difference during National Suicide Prevention Week and beyond, check out this website & the website for World Suicide Prevention Day.

I was 11 when my grandfather died. I remember my mother showing up at school and me getting excused from classes early. In my young, innocent mind I thought she was quite possibly going to surprise me with an Easter break trip to Florida.

Muffy Walker

Her eyes were ringed in red and her mood not suggestive of a vacation on the beach. She explained little as we drove home, except to tell me my grandfather, her daddy, had died of a heart attack earlier that day. She and my father were going to Boston for the funeral and my brother, sister and I would have to stay home with a sitter.

It wasn’t until I was in my 20s that I learned the truth. My grandfather, Ampa we called him, had gone down to his basement and shot himself.

I am now married and have three wonderful children. All of my children know about my grandfather’s suicide, my grandmother’s shock treatments, my father, brother, brother-in-law and mother-in-law’s alcoholism. They know that when my parents divorced I kept vigil over my mother for fear she would follow in her father’s footsteps. They know that I take an anti-depressant to help with menopause. My youngest son has bipolar disorder, and they know that it is a genetic biochemical brain illness that carries with it a 20% risk of suicide.

In the last two months, I have personally known of FIVE suicides, only one of which was fortunately not successful. In all but one, the attempt and completed deaths were kept a secret. Funerals were private, visits halted, phone calls not returned, obituaries never written.

This is not a judgment on how others deal with illness or death, but rather a plea to help break the stigma associated with mental illness. Mental illnesses are no different from “body” illnesses, they simply affect the brain, another organ in the human body.

“I had no idea” I heard, “he was always such a nice boy.” The secrecy of mental illness not only perpetuates the devastating and destructive effects from stigma, but become a barrier to care, an obstacle to reaching out for help, telling someone how you are feeling.

While there are many reasons for the discrepancies in help-seeking behavior, stigma can prevent people from receiving the help that they need. Individuals with a mental health disorder may feel similarly ostracized and feel embarrassed about having a psychological or emotional problem. (1)

This barrier to seeking help can have a ripple effect. Some individuals may attempt to handle their “mental health issue” through drugs or alcohol, both of which only exacerbate the illness by increasing the feelings of sadness and despondency. Left untreated, the illness only gets worse causing more isolation, emotional pain, and distress. In some cases, suicide may seem to be the only option.

The stigma impedes recovery by eroding individuals’ social status, social network, and self-esteem, all of which contribute to poor outcomes, including unemployment, isolation, delayed treatment-seeking, treatment-refractory symptoms, prolonged course, and avoidable hospitalizations. (2)

The downward spiraling behavior impacts everyone. The family member, friend or boss who is not privy to the person’s illness, may misinterpret behaviors, once again wrongly judging them.

If there is no shame or fear of rejection, then we not only can ask for help, but we can offer help and open up the dialogue without fear of embarrassing someone. “I saw her crying at the market, but I didn’t think it was my place to ask.” Why not? If a child was bleeding or an old man fainted, would you rush to their aid? When your neighbor’s child is diagnosed with cancer or your co-worker with Multiple Sclerosis, do you send cards, flowers, arrange dinner delivery and offer prayers? Of course you do.

Why then do we remain silent, perpetuating the sad little secret of mental illness?

Stigmatizing others has been around for centuries. Criminals, slaves, or traitors had a tattoo mark that was cut or burned into their skin in order to visibly identify them as blemished or morally polluted persons. These individuals were to be avoided or shunned, particularly in public places.1 Separating and judging groups by color, religion, sexual orientation, medical conditions (i.e. leprosy), and mental ability functions to establish a “us’ versus “them”. Discrimination, rejection, intolerance, inequity and exclusion all result from being stigmatized.

It is sometimes easy to forget that our brain, like all of our other organs, is vulnerable to disease. People with mental disorders often exhibit many types of behaviors such as extreme sadness and irritability, and in more severe cases, they may also suffer from hallucinations and total withdrawal. Instead of receiving compassion and acceptance, people with mental disorders may experience hostility, discrimination, and stigma. (3)

Stigma, although powerful, does not have to be inevitable.

Speak Up, Speak Out, Help Someone in Need.

International Bipolar Foundation is a not for profit organization whose mission is to eradicate stigma through the advancement of research; to promote and enhance care & support services; and to erase stigma through public education. For more information about IBPF or to join our Anti-Stigma Campaign, go to: or call (858) 342-0327.

1 Lacondria Simmons:
2 Link, Mirotznik, & Cullen, 1991; Link, Struening, Neese-Todd, Asmussen, & Phelan, 2001; Perlick et al., 2001; Sirey et al., 2001; Struening et al., 2001
3 Mental Health America; Colorado

Check out KRL’s Mental Health section for more mental health related articles.

Muffy Walker was born and raised outside of Philadelphia, PA. She currently resides in Rancho Santa Fe with her husband John C. Reed and their three sons. In 1983, Walker graduated with a Master’s of Science in Psychiatric Nursing from the University of Pennsylvania. She worked in the mental health field for over 18 years until she moved to California when she obtained her MBA with a focus in marketing from the University of California-Irvine. Walker is the founder and President of International Bipolar Foundation (IBPF). After learning that her youngest son had Bipolar Disorder, Walker joined other mental health boards and ultimately started IBPF. She has served on a plethora of boards including Children’s Hospital, Kids Korps USA, NeighborHelp, ChildHelp USA, and has dedicated the past 10 years of her life championing the education of the public about mental illness.


  1. This is an excellent article on the reasons and necessity of our society to change it’s behavior toward the stigma of mental illness. As stated, our minds (brains) are just another organ within our bodies and they can suffer disease and illness like any other organ, but where a damaged limb will make us limp, a mental illness may make one behave outside of the norm. Our perspectives need to change.

  2. Muffy, you are dead on, most people misinterpret mental illness. While outsiders have sympathy, empathy will never be there because they do not walk in our shoes. My wife does about as good of a job understanding me as many professionals, and she is the most normal person I know. For the masses, I feel, mental illness is still not recognized as being as serious as it actually is for those suffering. What this leads to is hiding the fact that anything is actually the matter. If I trace my roots to see what happened and where things went South, it would be wise to look at my grandparents on both sides of my family tree.

    My grandfather and grandmother on my dad’s side both resided in rural Mississippi. When my father was nine, his mother shot and killed herself in front of him. I am not sure how you survive such an ordeal, but he did. He would go on to join the Air Force during Korea and on military furlough, he would travel from California to Houston Texas, where his father was not residing. While here, he too, shot and killed himself. What I have been told about all of this is that my grandfather was an alcoholic and a drug abuser. My grandmother killed herself out of sheer embarrassment for his actions. To me it is obvious from his personal choices in life, that he was mentally impaired. Back then, during those times, this wasn’t something you admitted to having and furthermore, there was a lack of healthcare for those diagnoses.

    My grandfather and grandmother on my mom’s side both resided in Portland Maine. Both were highly educated with degrees from the University of Maine. My grandfather was an engineer for Brown and Root and let his work consume him completely. He would later go on to be diagnosed manic depressive and my grandmother had somewhat of a hoarding issue. Not hoarding trash, but buying up everything she could, and storing it in her home.

    So then it seems we skip a generation with both of my parents not showing any hereditary signs from their parents. Then we come to my generation, and it serves us an insurmountable blow to the mid-section. My parents have five siblings, four of which have or have had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. For some odd reason, maybe being the baby of the family, I am the only one who has been diagnosed bipolar among other things.

    Now that I have laid the foundation for my life, I want to go on to say that I have always had the odds stacked up against me. I have also seriously contemplated ending this charade on more than one occasion. I am fortunate to say, that when I feel like this, there is always some part of me that says just go to bed and things will be different, maybe not better, just different in the morning. Also having a loving wife, two kids and some of the best role models as parents keep me at bay from actually following through with the act. It is like during that intense extreme moment, I have a very sane thought of not disappointing others.

    Being bipolar and rapid cycling, I will admit I spend quite a bit of time in both mania as well as depression. So one day I will be flirting with mania, and be up for three or four days, then the crash of depression which can be a very dark period of time. In light of all that I have to deal with, I will always remain positive. I never hide the fact that I have a mental illness from my friends, coworkers or others I come across, because frankly, I am not embarrassed. You wouldn’t be embarrassed if you had cancer, and furthermore you wouldn’t treat someone differently that had cancer, so what is the difference. It wasn’t until the 90’s that mental health and addiction was finally accepted and acknowledged as medical conditions. I think we are finally headed in the right direction for people to begin to understand more and accept more. I think what sets us back, is the fact that you turn on the television and see all these A list actors getting in trouble, and the first thing they do is scream bipolar.

    I probably do not represent most of the bipolar people out there since I have consistently taken my meds, stayed in therapy, and tried to harness this thing. I also deal with both kidney disease and diabetes, but personally, I feel blessed each day to be here for another day. If you do not feel this way, you will be always be having feelings of nervousness or anxiety about the inevitable. Everyone just needs to relax, communicate and work with one another, and ride life. Everyone loves a good rollercoaster ride, they’re just jealous.

  3. Thanks Jscruggs for sharing your story with us.
    Lorie Ham, KRL Publisher

  4. Guess what? There’s still a lack of health care for these diagnoses, mainly because most sufferers are unable to function well enough in the working world to earn the high incomes that enable them to pay for treatment.

    (That and because, while in the throes of illness, many people can’t bring themselves to see or admit that there is anything wrong. And yes, part of this is due to stigma and the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality that most of us have.)

    In contrast to Jscruggs, I seem to have won the genetic lottery as far as mental health concerns go. My paternal grandmother and all five of her sisters were/are bipolar. My father moved us out of a cute neighborhood six blocks from the beach in order to get away from being called to referee the constant cussing, fussing, screaming, and fighting that went on at my grandparents’ house a block and a half away. Looking back on a childhood filled with attempts by family members to pit others in the family circle against each other, inability of some adults to get along with others and have self confidence enough to hold a job, and abusive treatment of children, I now see, after years of reading and study, that at least two very close family members on my mother’s side almost surely have BPD.

    Going back farther than that, there are family stories of a maternal great-grandmother who didn’t get out of bed for weeks at a time and always had to be taken care of, and an eldest daughter who raised the rest of the children in the family.

    Although these incidents were always spoken of derisively (“Why wouldn’t that woman get up out of bed? Lazy!”) anyone to hear of symptoms like this today should know these people are probably seriously mentally ill.

    How I escaped symptoms of serious mental illness at this point in my life with a family history like this, I’ll never know. But what I know about BPD now tells me that many, many of those vilified by some as “lazy welfare queens” who “need to be taught to work” and are “have a victim mentality to be dependent on the government teat” are that way because of serious mental illness that at present isn’t well understood by the general public. (Not to mention most politicians.)

    If it were well understood, everyone would know that drying up public sources of support for those who can’t function well enough to perform in a public workplace, for children who have to live in homes where a parent has these kinds of problems and for whom stress is likely to make them abusive or more abusive to the children, and allowing insurance companies to turn away those of limited means and deny coverage for mental health diagnoses, is absolutely unconscionable.

    If people knew more about mental illness, symptoms like extremely low self-confidence, very low interpersonal skills, extreme emotional reactions and behavior, and what looks like no common sense to you and me, but is actually a very low ability to solve problems, might be considered a mental health issue instead of the usual moral diagnosis (“People are just lazy and need to be booted off all assistance, especially any from the government.”)

    We also need to change our laws so that concerned family members don’t have to wait until someone is dead or bodily harm is imminent to get a loved one into meaningful help.

    You can’t make everyone with a mental illness cooperate with treatment. But we don’t have to make it as impossible to get a person who doesn’t think they need help into the system as it is today.

    If we abandon our weakest citizens, those who are suffering the most, to handle their mental illness and raise their vulnerable children alone, we have only ourselves to blame when the next generation does worse than this one. All we seem to be able to do right now, as a society, is look at whatever we’re doing that is actually making the problems worse, call that the solution, and apply it ever more vigorously.


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