My 21-year-old son called me on a beautiful fall morning in 2020 to tell me about his first serious relationship.
“I’m falling in love!” he declared.
Many mothers dream for their children to find love, companionship and acceptance, and I am no different. What I was not prepared for was the primary reason for their breakup just four months later: My mental illness.
I Was No Stranger to the Stigma Surrounding Mental Illness
I knew firsthand the consequences of choosing to speak out about mental health.
In 2019, after publishing a memoir that detailed my mental health challenges, a fellow church member I had known for more than a year stopped looking me in the eyes. She would speak to everyone around me and act as if I wasn’t there.
A new acquaintance I met at a women’s luncheon told me, after reading my book, that she didn’t know if we could be friends.
A neighbor said to me, “I read your book. I have never known anyone who has a mental illness.”
While these incidents were uncomfortable for me — and, unfortunately, not uncommon — the fallout from my mental health advocacy was far more damaging for my son.
His Girlfriend’s Family Was Fearful of My Diagnosis
The girlfriend’s mother, I learned, Googled our family and discovered that I had been on a national tour of public libraries to promote mental health awareness. My daughter — my co-author — and I have been to 46 states and given more than 50 media interviews.
I thought that seeing our TV interviews and hearing our story would leave a good impression because my family had pulled together to help me overcome my mental health challenges. We were sharing a message of hope to those suffering. I was proud of the mental health advocacy work we had done.
This was not the case.
“They don’t like me,” my son told me.
His girlfriend’s parents had never met him. They warned their daughter to call her immediately if my son did something “psycho.”
It didn’t matter that my son was in the college honors society, Phi Beta Kappa, an active participant in student associations or that the couple seemed very happy together.
My son tried to win his girlfriend’s parents over. He loved their daughter, a bright, vivacious and lovely woman. But when he went to dinner to meet her parents for the first time, her father ignored him, and her mother asked him if he had Tourette Syndrome (a condition of the nervous system he does not have) when he rolled his neck at the table.
My son’s girlfriend eventually revealed that her parents, who had just read my memoir, were pressuring her to end the relationship. My mental health struggles — not my son’s — were the deal breaker.
My Son Has Had to Face the Consequences of Stigma
In my book, I share that after my attempted suicide, doctors said I was in no shape to be a mother.
At 16, my son moved to Utah to live with my husband’s brother to finish high school. My son informed me that while in high school, people would ask him why he didn’t live with his parents.
“My mother got sick,” was his answer.
Most assumed I had cancer. My son never denied or confirmed this information; he wanted to keep my suicide attempt and our family mental health struggles private because of the stigma. Unfortunately, he would later suffer the consequences of stigma from the woman he loved.
Now, he wonders if anyone will love, accept and consider marrying him. It’s been seven months since his break-up, and he is still afraid that potential partners and their families may read my life story and make similar judgements. I understand completely.
It is no surprise that people with mental illness and their families stay silent.
We Have Work to Do in Changing the Conversation
People with mental health challenges are at an increased risk for being discriminated against and stereotyped. This affects public figures (like Britney Spears, whose struggles are public domain in her recent court hearings) and many families who are not in the limelight.
I worry the more open and transparent I am about my mental health journey, the more my family may have to deal with the consequences. However, I know that the way to break the ever-present, damaging stigma is for those of us with lived experience to be open and transparent about our mental health struggles.
So, I continue to speak out about my story. And I tell my son that a loving partner — as I have in my own husband — is someone who loves you for you; someone who won’t let stigma get in the way of loving you. That is true love.
Sonja Wasden is a mental health advocate, keynote speaker and co-author of “An Impossible Life,” which was featured on CBS This Morning as a story of hope for those living with mental illnesses. She has had the privilege of sharing her story and message of hope with millions of people.