Q. I know that I need to see a psychotherapist, but my mother keeps saying I’m not “crazy,” so I should just not think about my problems? Could you please settle this dispute that only “crazy” people seek help?
Mental illness is still too often “stigmatized,” meaning that there are negative social attitudes about emotional issues which make people frightened of acknowledging they may have problems and, therefore, prevents them from seeking appropriate help. Although as psychotherapists, we hear the phrase “you see crazy people” articulated less frequently in recent years, the belief is still strong in some people who are not well-educated in mental health treatment.
Having psychological issues or emotional problems is not so different from having any physical ailment, like diabetes or arthritis. If you have such an ailment, you need to deal with it by finding appropriate medical help. If you have emotional or psychological issues, you need to deal with them in the same way and for the same reasons.
Most emotional issues can be treated and many conditions do not require long-term treatment. Problems can arise from stressful situations (a death in the family, divorce, the loss of a job, doing poorly in school, other traumatic experiences, and so forth). It can also arise from chemical imbalances in the body which may be hormonal, genetic, or from some other cause.
At some point in life, everyone will have difficulty coping with what confronts them, but that does not make us mentally ill or “crazy.” It makes us human. Acknowledging the existence of an emotional problem is not a sign of weakness or lack of character. It is potentially the first step toward finding the way back to a happy and healthy life.
Q. I believe that my 75-year-old mother has Alzheimer’s, but my three older siblings are in denial. She forgets her way home, drives erratically, and sometimes doesn’t know if it is day or night. I am unable to go to the doctor with her. How can I convince my siblings that something is wrong?
No one likes to see a parent age, and it is common for people to pretend that nothing is wrong until there are serious problems. I would suggest that you have a family meeting and document everything you have noticed. Explain to your siblings that if your mother is in an automobile accident, she could be killed or kill someone. No one wants to live with the idea that they could have prevented an accident or death, but did nothing.
If you can convince your siblings that there is a problem, then create a plan for helping your mother make changes. You can help her with chores. You can insist that she ask friends to drive her places. Most people have no problem helping their friends or family members. You need not confront her with her memory problem; rather blame the changes on “several recent accidents,” “a high crime rate,” or “we are just worried about you.”
You may also call your mother’s doctor. Although he or she cannot discuss your mother’s condition without her permission, the doctor can listen to your concerns. Many times Alzheimer’s is missed by physicians because they only see people for a few moments. If the patient and family report that everything is fine, they have no way of knowing that there are mounting problems. If your mother is not already doing so, I suggest that she see a gerontologist, a doctor who specializes in care of the elderly. I would also suggest that you contact the Alzheimer’s Association at alz.org or call their 24 hour hotline at 1-800-272-3900.
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Nancy Ryburn holds a doctorate degree in psychology from Yeshiva University in New York City where she maintained a private practice for several years. She now teaches psychology at Southeast Arkansas College. If you have questions, e-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. The questions will not be answered personally, but could appear in a future column. There will be no identifying information and all e-mails remain confidential.