Despite being medically-recognized conditions, mental health issues are often stigmatized and seen as something to be ashamed of; some people even refuse to acknowledge their existence. Seeking professional help is frequently seen as a sign of weakness and people often hide away family members who suffer from mental illness, refusing to talk about it publicly. Through sharing experiences and raising awareness of the different struggles that people face and the need for effective medical treatment, the stigma towards these invisible illnesses can be shattered. So to help us have honest, open and informed discussions on mental health, I am sharing the story of my special needs brother and how we discovered that he had OCD.
My brother is 21 years old, however he has developmental issues meaning that he currently has the mental age of a 14 year old. Six months ago he started to become more aggressive. It was very out of character, he was easily provoked and couldn’t focus or follow instructions. We went to see the doctor that had been treating him since he was a child. The doctor told us that because of his mental age we were effectively dealing with a teenager so these behaviors were normal. We were informed that the acting out was probably also as a result of him being a bit spoilt and considering himself the man of the house as our father lives abroad. The doctor said that if we were unable to deal with him, we could always send him to a boarding school. That was not something that we wanted to consider, so we were prescribed medication to control his behaviors.
“He used to wake up at 3am to shower and cut his nails until they bled, but he still didn’t believe that they were clean.”
After three months, we travelled to Saudi Arabia to see our father. When we returned, thing were even worse. My brother became even more aggressive and had constant headaches. He used to wake up at 3am to shower and cut his nails until they bled, but he still didn’t believe that they were clean. He would spend at least 30 minutes at a time, several times a day, fixing his pants with his belt and they would be so tight that they would leave marks. At least four times a day, he would go around the apartment checking that all the doors, windows and curtains were closed. Then later he would go around opening them all, and if you questioned it he would get angry and scream and cry. We couldn’t sleep for weeks, my mother and I would have to wake up every two hours to check on him.
We went to see another doctor who told us the same thing, that we were dealing with the mind of a teenager and just needed to be patient. We were given a new prescription and crossed out fingers for the best. However, after two weeks, the situation was still as bad. It was becoming completely unmanageable. We went to another doctor but she just gave another prescription which had no impact. The side effects for each medicine were starting to make him very angry and frustrated. We couldn’t take it anymore!
My mother decided to take him to boaarding school, they said that they would admit him, but first she had to send him to their psychiatrist. My mother and I spent the whole night before crying worrying in anticipation of the appointment. At the appointment, my mother told the psychiatrist the whole story and my mother was told that my brother had OCD. All of the symptoms and behaviors that had been so out of character could be explained by this diagnosis. They were all actions that were normal for an OCD-sufferer. His mind would become obsessed with an idea and stress out over it but not be able to switch it off. The psychiatrist was able to give us the medication that he actually needed and the effects have been amazing. He is more relaxed, happy, quiet and doesn’t have headaches anymore. It had been living hell for months, but now we can live in peace.
“Don’t believe the misconceptions that mental health problems come from neglect or the parents failing their child in some way.”
This experience has taught us many important lessons about mental health. Firstly, it took us three doctors before we eventually got the right diagnosis. Even amongst qualified practitioners, more needs to be known about mental health! So if you notice these symptoms you should be open to getting the opinions of multiple doctors and mental health specialists to be sure that you have the correct diagnosis and medication to deal with the situation.
Secondly, don’t believe the misconceptions that mental health problems come from neglect or from parents failing their child in some way. Anyone can have it, it is a medical condition that doesn’t just go away if you hide it or try and suppress it. Like with any illness, professional help is needed!
You shouldn’t be ashamed if you or a family member have mental health problems. Being open to speaking about it with people like teachers can be very helpful in allowing them to provide the appropiate support.
Finally the idea that someone with mental health issues is constantly showing symptoms of their illness is not true. My brother would suppress the compulsions in public and then let it all out when he got home. People would tell us, ‘we saw him and he is fine! You are over exaggerating how bad it is!’. However, just because he seems okay at some parts of the day doesn’t mean that he doesn’t have a serious issue.