Every year Americans break about 6.8 million bones. But unlike broken bones and other physical afflictions, mental illnesses aren’t something you can simply put a cast on and heal. They’re intense, ongoing mental battles that require an immense amount of strength and willpower to overcome. And, unfortunately, Americans living with mental illness often face a stigma that those with physical injuries or diseases don’t have to face.
Father Ron Powers is all too familiar with the stigma, stress, and anguish that can come with mental illness. As a father of two sons who suffered from severe schizophrenia, he’s suffered in a way that few fathers will ever understand.
About 70% of mental health problems have their onset during childhood or adolescence, and Kevin, Powers’ younger son, was no exception. Kevin was an exceedingly talented musician who started struggling with schizophrenia when he was just 17. But in 2005, he took his own life, right before what would’ve been his 21st birthday.
A couple years later, Dean, Powers’ older son, began experiencing similar symptoms of schizophrenia, punctuated by a psychotic break.
“There is no greater…feeling of helplessness than to watch two beloved sons deteriorate before [your] eyes, not knowing what to do to bring them back,” he told Terry Gross from NPR’s Fresh Air.
No One Cares About Crazy People, Powers’ new book, is a personal memoir about his sons and a look into the social, legal, and medical history of mental illness in the United States. Dean is now medicated and in recovery, but Powers is quick to note that many people who suffer from schizophrenia don’t receive necessary treatment, partly because they truly do not believe that they are sick.
“This unwillingness to believe that one is afflicted has led to tremendous problems,” he said. “To force that person into being helped is a violation of his or her civil rights…and the law may penalize the care workers who give [people with schizophrenia] medications or admit them to a hospital against their will…That is the great reigning Catch-22 of the way our society deals — or fails to deal — with schizophrenia.”
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States today, affecting 40 million adults ages 18 and older, or about 18% of the U.S. population. But what many people fail to realize is that many symptoms of anxiety align closely with symptoms of other mental illnesses like schizophrenia. Because symptoms often overlap between disorders, it can be difficult for some people to receive an accurate diagnosis.
Despite all of the tragedy that his family has experienced, Powers admits to having dreams about his son Kevin.
“In the dreams Kevin is alive. He’s a small boy, around 10, 11, 12 years old. We know he’s a gifted guitar player, but he’s stopped playing his guitar, and he won’t start again,” said Powers. “It might be a metaphor for his death, but he shows up, almost every night, as I say…I’m glad to see him. In the dreams he is etched so perfectly. The reality of him, the physical sharp-focused reality of Kevin is overwhelming and all of his kindness and his goodness are there.”
Powers’ memoir, No One Cares About Crazy People: The Chaos and Heartbreak of Mental Health in America is available for purchase online.