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Originally published June 16, 2012 at 4:00 PM | Page modified June 18, 2012 at 4:33 PM

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Mental illness: a child's demons, a parent's fears and hopes

In the wake of the Cafe Racer shootings, the parent of an adult son with paranoid schizophrenia writes about the heavy burden on families of people with mental illness.

Special to The Times

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I hope that many policy makers read Ms. Adrian's column and takes her views into accoun... MORE
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FOR the past two weeks, I have been pondering Ian Stawicki's family, how some people have commented that they should have done more for him, whether they should have taken his guns away before he killed four people at Cafe Racer and one near Town Hall.

The family's burden lies heavy on me because I am the parent of a son about Ian's age, who has lived with paranoid schizophrenia the past 18 years.

For the past nine years I have been teaching a class for parents whose children have a mental illness. I tell the public that recovery is possible in even the most serious cases of mental illness.

I believe this. My son's story is a case in point: He works part time, has his own apartment, cares for two cats and most of all, loves our family and treats us well.

However, recovery does not mean that families with a mentally ill child have also recovered.

All the families I have taught — more than 200 — are deeply grief-stricken. They live with a continual, corrosive fear. They are always hyperalert. They lack support because people fear mental illness and stay away.

They are often blamed for their child's behavior and they often blame themselves because it could be their gene that brought this on their child. They feel as if they can never do enough and they often spend every dime they can find to mitigate the effects, while knowing there is no cure.

They force themselves to give up the dreams most parents have — college, job, family — and tell themselves that the small steps toward some modest level of independence are sufficient to replace those dreams. And finally, they hope and pray that their child won't commit suicide or be the one who murders five innocent people.

Through it all, those parents are putting on a brave face, giving love, learning delicate negotiation skills, working not to self-medicate with drugs or alcohol. They ignore odd habits and unwashed bodies, and try to redirect frightening and sad conversations. They try to protect siblings, and carry on, despite almost universal depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I deal with depression and anxiety. I will never be able to retire. But my son smiles now and is proud of the life he has made despite his illness. It takes incredible bravery to build a life of worth when you can't rely on your brain to give you factual information about your world. I am enormously proud of both him and his sister, who remains his most faithful champion.

If you want to assign blame, lay it at the doorstep of all of us who refuse to care for those among us who truly cannot care for themselves, all of us who have not urged our legislators to fund critical programs that help our children get treatment, housing and employment.

Here are a few things we can get to work on right away:

• Fund hospital stays long enough and early enough in the course of the illness so our children can learn the skills to deal with their illness.

• Hold the State Health Care Authority accountable for creating barriers that force doctors to choose the cheapest — instead of the best — medication for our children. Their latest, hastily cobbled together plan is the most restrictive in the nation.

• Help us change the involuntary-treatment laws that say that our child can't receive hospital care unless he or she will almost certainly die or seriously harm others within the next few hours. Instead, allow hospitalization when there is a "substantial" risk, not just an "imminent" risk.

We all have a part to play to prevent such tragedies in the future. We all have some responsibility, not just Stawicki's family and not just mine. We parents desperately need your help.

Farrell Adrian is president of the Washington State Chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

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