Rachel Pruchno

Rachel Pruchno

Rachel Pruchno, the distinguished developmental psychologist and expert on aging, knows all too well how mental illness not only ravages the sufferer, it also devastates their families. For her, the tragic effects of mental illness on a family were experienced not once but twice: first when her mother’s battle with manic depression ended in suicide; and again as a mother with a deeply troubled daughter whose mental afflictions led to her death.

Although the stigma attached to mental illness seems to be lessening, the fear of being discriminated against because of a mental disorder continues to have a stranglehold on society. Of all the reasons why sufferers do not seek treatment, stigma seems especially insidious as it creates a vicious cycle: the fear of being “found out” leads to secrecy, self-shame, and self-defeating behaviors, which can prevent a person from seeking the information and professional help they need, and left unchecked, could seriously impact a person’s quality of life or even lead to death.

Understanding the harm in secrecy that is fed by stigma, Pruchno shone a bright light into the darkness of mental disease by publishing her experiences in “Surrounded by Madness: A Memoir of Mental Illness and Family Secrets,” which also serves as the title of her talk for the annual Woman’s Club of Washington University Lecture. Copies of her memoir will be available for purchase at a book signing following the program.

“[Approximately] 78.4 million people in the United States are living with a diagnosable mental illness,” Pruchno stated, “more than those with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined.”

When one adds family members to this number, the estimate reveals that nearly one third of the nation’s population is affected. But the majority of these people are suffering silently, just as Pruchno had been.

As important as it is to recognize the large role stigma plays in preventing people from receiving available help, Pruchno also stresses many other hurdles exist. One culprit is the underfunded, fragmented and difficult-to-navigate American mental health system. She sees the HIPPA law as another block, for it allows mentally ill persons after the age of 18 to keep their health care decisions private.