My 19-year-old nephew is staying with me this week while my sister and the rest of her family are on spring break. My sister didn’t want to leave him home alone, but it’s extremely difficult to have him here.
Not for the reasons you might think — like that he’s out partying or being uncooperative. It’s difficult and heartbreaking because Andrew, or what remains of him, is sitting on the mantle in a bronze urn, draped with a rosary that belonged to his grandfather.
My nephew died in his sleep two weeks ago, just four weeks shy of his 20th birthday. The grief is all-consuming for our family, especially his mother, father and 16-year-old sister.
This loss is also devastating for his many friends and their parents, former teachers, coworkers and all who knew him. More than 500 people attended his funeral, because Andrew was a kind, caring and fun person. He was good to everyone else, despite how he felt about himself.
We don’t know the exact cause of Andrew’s death — the autopsy results were inconclusive, and we have yet to receive the toxicology report. We do know that mental illness played a role, as likely did drugs — legal or illegal — that he used to dull or escape his ongoing pain.
Andrew was a perfect little bundle of joy when he came into this world nearly two decades ago, and he was funny and precocious from an early age. He was a typical little boy, playing baseball and football. He was a Boy Scout for many years. He had the normal childhood angst — it seemed, anyway — sometimes struggling to fit in or lacking confidence.
But that angst began to turn into something much more around age 12. He began having difficulty in school and started dropping out of activities. He became angry and frustrated with his family and friends. He was troubled, and he needed help.
My sister, a stay-at-home-mom, and her husband, an emergency-room physician, consulted with teachers and school counselors, doctors and psychiatrists. Andrew was diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Even with medication and help from parents and counselors, he continued to struggle.
In high school, when he started getting into trouble at every turn, his parents sent him to a special school so he could get the help he needed and get away from destructive behavior. A few years later, he went to Rogers Memorial Hospital in Wisconsin, which specializes in the treatment of OCD. Andrew had people helping him at every turn — his parents, the best teachers, counselors, doctors and psychiatrists.
It took not just a village but a whole army of people to help Andrew, and he seemed to be stepping onto a good path. He was holding down a job, and on his own initiative was preparing to go back to Rogers to get a better handle on his disease. But he never got the chance.
Andrew died in his sleep the day he was supposed to start a new job and just days after going through the preadmission process with the hospital.
Even though Andrew had an army of helpers and caregivers, he did not make it out of his war with mental illness. This war, like all others, is hell.
The National Institutes of Health estimates that one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental illness in any given year, and statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services note that one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder.
About half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and three-quarters by 24. Despite effective treatments, there are long delays — sometimes decades — between the onset of symptoms and when people seek and receive treatment. Fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with a diagnosable mental disorder receive mental health services in a given year.
Millions of people in our country are struggling every day with mental illness — but most aren’t getting help. Many don’t have a support system. They may not have parents or friends who understand or have resources to help. They may not have health insurance that covers the cost of treatment. Or perhaps they feel ashamed or embarrassed to seek help, because mental illness still carries a stigma in our society.
As my family searches for some type of meaning and comfort in the depths of our grief, we hold out hope that perhaps Andrew’s story will help people have a greater understanding and compassion for those who struggle with mental illness. We hope that individuals, families, our communities and our country as a whole will become more comfortable talking about it and how it can be treated for the sake of all of us.
Talk about it; donate to mental health organizations; vote for government leaders who support this cause. Please do this for Andrew and for all those battling to survive their own wars with mental illness.
Chris Bauer is a writer and public relations professional living in Maple Grove. She can be reached by at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @AuthorCBauer.