02/18/2014 04:50 pm ET Updated Apr 20, 2014

Let's Take Mental Illness Out of the Shadows

I've read several good articles about mental illness in our local newspaper here in my small town in Maine. The headline of the last article I read was, Mentally Ill Wait Too Long. The article stated, "More than 500 Mainers are on the waiting list for the most basic mental health services, with an average wait of two months and sometimes waiting nearly a year." I read that sentence and immediately had a sense of despair and disbelief. How can this be?

Mental illness can be as destructive and fatal as serious physical illnesses, but mental illnesses do not get the same level of attention and care. Mental illness often places a terrible burden and a huge impact on families. Often there is a societal perception that mothers are somehow responsible. On top of this serious emotional strain for a family caring for a child with mental illness, there is the added strain of waiting two months or up to a year to get the help they need. Mental illness is not given the attention that it needs. The situation is so dire I often think someone should sue the Department of Health and Human Services, if only to bring some attention to how desperately help is needed.

Two psychiatric doctors recently wrote a letter to The New York Times quite eloquently about the state of care for the mentally ill in this country. It was in response to an article The New York Times ran titled, "When It Comes to Mental Health Coverage, a Long Line of Patients Is Still Waiting." Their letter, which you can read here, gets it right. Every child needs access to the right treatment at the right time.

What physical ailment takes a year to be taken care of? How do those who are mentally ill and need help survive a year? How does a family or a mother with a seriously ill child survive a year's wait? This is exactly what we are asking those struggling with a mentally ill child to do, and it is unacceptable.

I remember some 50 or so years ago when my husband and I became involved with mental illness in our state. We were struggling to bring mental illness into the 20th century in Maine. There was a lady from the northern part of the state whose husband had left her with a very dangerous and mentally ill son in his teens. She came to all our meetings. She was struggling to stay financially solvent. She was simply overwhelmed. She was in her mid-30s, and our group tried to help. One day after a meeting, we learned that she died suddenly. It was a terribly sad situation.

Today, in my older age, I want to pass on advice to mothers with seriously mentally ill children:

You are not alone.
We need advocacy, not shame.
We should support one another.
Sharing your stories with other mothers can be helpful to you and to them.
We should all search for answers.
We should give voice to mental illness so we can shed light on the impact of mental illness in our society and find resources to help us.
We can empower other mothers by sharing our stories.
We need to learn our rights.
We need to ask questions and demand answers.

Sometimes I dream about mothers of mentally ill children gathering together in small groups and then those groups grow in numbers and turn into bigger groups. I dream that we can change what I call the shadow of mental illness and bring light to such an important issue, impacting so many families. I don't want mental illness to be the forgotten illness. I don't want mothers to feel alone. I want mothers to speak up and become empowered.

I wish there were simple answers, but there aren't. Together we can find solutions. Perhaps if mothers can speak out and share with each other, we can form powerful groups of healing and mental illness could take a new step forward toward awareness and progress. If we join together for change, we can take mental illness out of the shadows.