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Home Schooling and Mental Illness

by Dianne Stuckey-Killian
  • Is it a sin to take anti-depressants?
  • How do I know if I have a spiritual problem or a physical/mental illness?
  • How can a Christian home schooling mother get depressed?
  • How can I help a friend who is depressed?

These are hard questions with no easy answers.

Andrea Yates, a home schooling mother of five, became so mentally ill that on June 20, 2001, she drowned her four young boys and infant daughter in the bathtub of their Houston, home. My heart shattered into a million pieces and my eyes filled with tears at the news. "Not a home schooling mom!" I cried. My mind racedů "Could I do this?" "Could my mental illness get this out of control?" I was terrified.

My mind focused in on the similarities between the Yates family and my own, which heightened my fears. Just like Andrea Yates, I am a home schooling mother with five children. Just like Andrea Yates, when my fifth child was born my oldest was 7 years old, the same age as Noah Yates. Just like Andrea Yates, I have dealt with mental illness and depression for many years. And, just like Andrea Yates, I have thought, in my most depressed moments, that I have ruined my children. I never thought of harming them, but I have thought they would be better off without me.

Most of the home schooling mothers that I have met appear to me to have everything together. We handle the needs of the household: the chores, the meals and the shopping. We also take care of the children's needs: trips to the dentist, the doctor, the dermatologist and orthodontist, plus their numerous recreational and sporting activities. In addition, are the tasks inherent to home schooling: deciding on and purchasing a curriculum for each child, setting-up and maintaining school schedules and grading, then of course the daily teaching and supervising. More often than not, the mother is the primary teacher, principal and superintendent rolled into one.

As home schooling mothers we are with our children 24 hours a day, seven days a week because we choose to be. We love our children and believe that we can provide them with the best education. However, it is not easy to be together all the time, day in and day out. It can be stressful, and for the woman who has a mental illness the stresses are multiplied. Mental illness significantly impairs the thoughts, feelings and/or behaviors of millions of Americans every day, including moms who home school their children. Though depression is a form of mental illness you do not have to be mentally ill to get depressed. There are numerous causes of depression; mental illness is only one of them.

Other Causes of Depression

A death in the family, divorce, financial struggles, a miscarriage, and having a chronic or terminal illness and sin are just a few of the situations that can send someone spiraling into the dark pit of despair. King David knew first hand about depression and most of the Psalms are his personal journal entries where he is pouring out his heart to God.

Psalm 13:2 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and everyday have sorrow in my heart?

The root of King David's depression was sin. Once he went to God and asked for forgiveness, his spirits lifted and he wrote many verses thanking and praising God for His mercy and strength.

Psalm 18:1 I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;

Psalm 18:33 He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he enables me to stand on the heights.

Psalm 19:7 The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul.

Psalm 40:2 He lifted me out of the pit of despair, out of the mud and the mire. He set my feet on solid ground and steadied me as I walked along.

Yes, God can revive the soul from depression that is caused by a spiritual issue. I now know that the Lord also uses medications such as anti-depressants, mood stabilizers and many others to get the brain functioning normally and thus revive the soul.

Spiritual or Physical

There are many opinions on whether depression is a spiritual problem that would go away if the affected person would abide in Christ, or is a true physiological condition caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. I, for one, have tried to treat it both ways exclusive of the other, but have come to the conclusion that my illness or condition, as I prefer to think of it, is a mixture of both. It began as a physical thing when I was in elementary school and continues to this day, but as I grew up and came to know the Lord, I have had spiritual issues just like everyone else. The spiritual and physiological intertwine to make a complex problem, which of course God could cure if He wanted to, but if He chooses not to, then I have to learn how to deal with the problem in a way that allows me to be the person God created me to be.

In the summer of 1998, I plummeted into the worst depression I had ever known. My life stopped. I did not cook or clean. I could not function. I lay on the couch in my room for weeks - thinking. Thinking about what a failure I was. Thinking about my childhood and teenage years, wondering why I was such a loser. Thinking about how I had ruined my children because I was not good enough or smart enough. Since I felt so bad about myself, I could not see that anything I had ever done was beneficial. I was hopeless and helpless. I had a plan to kill myself and I had the medication to do it. God intervened and I came out emotionally and spiritually stronger.

Cyclothymia

It was during this time that a few friends asked me why I put myself down all the time. I made myself go see a psychiatrist to find out why I was such a miserable person. I was diagnosed with something I had never even heard of before - Cyclothymic Disorder. Cyclothymia comes from the Greek word "thymos" meaning mind - it is used as a root word in psychiatry referring to mood. The prefix "cyclo" means cycling. Simply put, it means that sometimes I am more energetic and enthusiastic than the average person and at other times I am more despondent, detached, and depressed. Years ago, after the death of my husband's mother, Randy said to me, "I will never feel the joy you feel or the sadness you feel." My highs are too high and my lows are too low. I am either as busy as a bee trying to conquer the world or I am a lifeless couch potato with barely enough energy to push the buttons on the remote control. There are brief periods of normalcy in between when I am neither hyperactive nor sad, but these are rare.

I am a "rapid cycler" which means that I have many mood swings a year. For several weeks or months of the year I am extremely productive. New projects are started with gusto. Curriculum is purchased by the armload, with high hopes that this year will be different. "This year we will do it all," I tell myself. Ideas for a new co-op are formulated in my mind.

Over the years I have had wonderful ideas for writing my own curriculum. Then slowly, without even realizing it is happening, I begin to get irritable. I begin doubting my ability to accomplish anything worthwhile. I begin withdrawing. I begin wondering why I was ever been born. Thankfully, I do not have a full-blown bipolar disorder. Until recently, Bipolar Disorder was known as Manic-Depressive Illness. The difference between someone who has Cyclothymia and someone who is bipolar is the severity of the symptoms. Cyclothymia is a less severe form of bipolar disorder.

Mentally Ill But Not Forgotten

Many historical figures: poets, writers, composers, and military leaders were known to have mental health problems. In some cases, a manic-depressive person can accomplish much more in his or her life than someone without the illness can. The following world leaders all experienced mental health issues, Goodwin and Jamison, authors of Manic-Depressive Illness, (1990, Oxford University Press) believe that these men were mostly cyclothymic. They believe that someone with a psychotic form of a manic-depressive illness would be unable to make the necessary decisions that a military leader is responsible for.

Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Commander-in-chief and Lord Protector of England, experienced severe mood swings for most of his adult life. In 1630, Oliver Cromwell became a Puritan. About this time he had a complete mental breakdown. He believed that God had a special purpose for his life. He stated, "If here I may serve my God by suffering or by doing, I shall be most glad".

Alexander Hamilton, (1755-1804), first Secretary of the Treasury, was affected by mental illness, as were many members of his family. At times, his fiery temper and extreme paranoia controlled him; at other times he was an extremely productive writer and led an active life.

Napoleon Bonaparte, (1769-1821), who crowned himself the Emperor of France in 1804, was also affected by mood swings. Usually he was optimistic and energetic, but at times his mood changed and he found himself in the depths of despair.

Abraham Lincoln, (1809-1865), 16th President of the U.S. suffered from severe suicidal depressions about which many authors have written.

Kay Jamison also authored Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and The Artistic Temperament. This book goes into great detail about authors, composers, artists, and poets who have lived and died with manic-depressive illness. Her book helped me to see that something positive and can from something negative. Being mentally ill doesn't have to be the end of the world. I can be a productive member of society and need not be ashamed.

Stigma

I wonder if the stigma associated with mental health issues will ever vanish. "Mental illness" is not considered "real" and is not looked upon in the same way as a physical one. People seldom send get-well cards or flowers to one who is depressed. You may be considered a burden by your family because of extra doctor bills and the cost of prescriptions and because you are usually pessimistic and critical and sometimes out of control.

As I write this and imagine you reading it, I know many of you are skeptical. This is an exceptionally hard subject to talk about especially in Christian home schooling circles. The National Mental Health Association has compiled the results of a recent survey revealing that 43 percent of Americans still believe that depression is the result of a weak will or a deficit in one's character. Most conservative Christians do not want to discuss or think about mental illness in any way. We tend to dismiss anything having to do with psychiatry. "It's not in the Bible", we say.

Many illnesses such as diabetes, cancer, leukemia, and heart disease are not mentioned in the Bible, but they are real, nonetheless. If it were not a real physiological illness, why does the medicine work? Why am I functioning better now than before I took the medicine? Why is it okay for diabetics to take insulin and heart patients to take heart medicine, but it's not okay for someone with a mental health problem to take medications. Yes, they can be over prescribed and over used, but does that mean we should be denied the life changing benefits they provide.

Denial

For years, I have rejected the idea that, what I have lived with since childhood was a "mental illness". I did not want to believe it. Who would? When I was a child, I thought that I was just a bad little girl. I felt like I was not as good as the other kids in school were. I cried often and had horrible migraine headaches. I remember walking down the street singing my favorite songs, One is the Loneliest Number and Alone Again Naturally.

When I was a teenager I believed that I was a worthless troublemaker. I wanted so much to be like everyone else. Even from a very young age, I felt different. My feelings of inferiority grew during those turbulent teenage years. I am embarrassed to say; that I tried so hard to be "cool" that I began smoking cigarettes when I was twelve. At fifteen, I ran away for the first time and started drinking and doing drugs. At seventeen, I had a half-hearted suicide attempt after running away and hitchhiking from Missouri to California.

Until recently, I believed that I was a horrible wife and mother. My recurring depression mixed with periods of joyfulness, business, and excitement made for a very interesting home schooling experience. It seemed that everything revolved around my moods. How I felt about something, and what I was involved in at the moment, set the pace for the whole family. Once when I was in a "manic" mood: I was the home school support group leader, worked as the church nursery coordinator, hosted a pregnant teen in my home and published the home school newsletter, all at the same time. Of course, back then I did not realize this was "manic". I just thought I had a lot of energy. Depression has always followed a time of great achievement or activity in my life. Now that I understand why, I pray that I will be able to see the cycles coming and prepare for the changes. I pray that knowledge of the illness, plus the medication to treat it and the understanding and support of friends and family will be the necessary tools for a stable future.

I feel guilty because when I am in a good (manic) mood, we do our chores and schoolwork and everything else I can get involved in; I fix decent meals and enjoy eating together at the dining room table with my family. When I am not depressed, we go places and do things. We have a life.

When I am in a bad (depressed) mood, it takes every ounce of energy just to get out of bed in the morning. I lay on the couch watching one, sad, Lifetime movie after another. I prefer eating my meals in front of the TV because I want to shut everything out including the normal conversation and arguments of the kids. I lose interest in lesson planning, home school group activities, and I make excuses for the projects that fall by the way side.

I have not conquered all my negative attitudes toward mental illness; I have refused to take medicine in the past and still prefer not to seek psychotherapy. In February 2001, I realized that I could not deny it any longer. I was in the middle of another terrible depression. I was spending hours reading the Bible and Christian books on counseling and depression. I was writing in my prayer journal faithfully, asking the Lord to show me where the sin was that was keeping me down. What He led me to know to be true was that mental illness is as real as any physical aliment and that I need to accept that I have Cyclothymia and get on with my life. I have to forgive myself for past mistakes and move on. I also decided to give anti-depressants another try. I had completed enough research to know that I needed medication to balance out the chemicals in my brain. Believe me it is not easy to come to terms with something you have tried to deny for 28 years.

I used to think that I was the only home schooling mom with mental health problems. Lately the Lord has brought me in contact with other moms who deal with depression and bipolar disorder. I am not alone and neither are you, if you are dealing with a similar situation.

According to the Colorado HealthSite:
Over 15 million Americans suffer from depression. It is the most common psychological disorder in the country. One in four women and one in ten men will have one or more episodes of clinical depression in their life.

Incorrect Thinking

It is important to realize that the person with this type of illness tends to think incorrectly. Incorrect thinking leads to incorrect actions. I have left many churches and stopped different activities and Bible Studies because of incorrect thinking. When I get depressed, I begin to think that people do not like me. When I think no one likes me I think they don't want me around, I don't want to burden them with my presence, so I quit. This is the kind of situation when the actions of the affected person have a negative impact on the entire family. I hate to think of how many of my children's friendships I have interrupted because of my depressions. Once we stopped going to a church we usually stopped seeing our friends, which meant my kids did not see their friends anymore.

Severe depression is an all-consuming condition that grows darker and lonelier with each passing day. The sun does not shine as brightly, the birds do not sing as loudly and the joys of home schooling and motherhood fade behind a thick cloud of doubt, loneliness and despair. Unless measures are taken to bring the depression under control it can devastate days, weeks, months and even years of a persons life.

Depression and mental illness affects the whole family. My parents and sisters endured years of frustration and bewilderment as I ran away repeatedly, attempted suicide and on two separate occasions spent time in psychiatric hospitals.

Do you or someone you know, cycle in and out of depression? Is there someone in your home school support group or at church that has quit attending monthly meetings, park days, field trips and church activities? Maybe she is feeling like a failure because she cannot get everything accomplished each day. Maybe she is feeling guilty because she is having a difficult time coping with the myriad of responsibilities. Or perhaps she has just had another baby; she knows she should be thrilled, but instead finds herself overwhelmed by trying to be a "Home School Super Mom"!

Reaching Out and Helping Others

Mental illness puts barriers between friends and family members. The person with the illness feels inferior and isolated, fearful that if her secret were known she would loose her friends. Maybe she thinks she is not a good enough mother or friend or person. It could be that she thinks no one likes her and that others would prefer if she stayed home. The mentally healthy person may be unsure of how to help a friend who is showing signs of depression or who has been diagnosed with a mental illness.

Psalm 69:20 Their insults have broken my heart, and I am in despair. If only one person would show some pity; if only one would turn and comfort me.

I doubt if anyone will ever know what caused Andrea Yates to do what she did, but certainly we can get involved in the lives of our neighbors and our home schooling friends to help prevent a similar tragedy from happening. We must we willing to voice our concerns to each other, even if we are afraid of being nosey.

God has commanded us to love each other. It really isn't hard to love others. Try and see others through Jesus eyes. Imagine that the ill person is your mother, your sister or yourself. Love them in the way that you would want to be loved.

1 John 3:23 And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. (NKJ)

Hebrews 10:24 Think of ways to encourage one another to outbursts of love and good deeds. (Today's English Translation)

1 Peter 3:8 Finally, all of you be of one mind, having compassion for one another; love as brothers, be tenderhearted, be courteous; (NKJ)

In 1998, I was so frantic that I actually had to ask for help. It was incredibly hard to pick up the phone and call a friend. However, it was harder to know that my husband and children had to do all of their chores as well as mine. They were going without dinners and my oldest daughter had to bear the burden. I cried as I told my friend that I was a bad mother and that I was not functioning at home. It got so bad that I enrolled my two youngest children in public school. At the time, I had been a home schooling mom for 13 years and had no plans to stop. In the weeks following that call, friends came over and cleaned the house, brought dinner and helped with the kids. Many people began praying for me. I could not have made it without them. As soon as I began to get better Nikki and Alex came back home to school!

There are several ways that you can help someone with mental health problems are:

  • Take dinner to the family.
  • Send a card or letter.
  • Invite her out to lunch and provide the babysitting for your children as well as hers.
  • Clean her house-help with laundry.
  • Take her kids to your house and give her the day off.
  • A group could get together and help by teaching her children for a while.
  • Pray together on the phone.
  • Listen as she goes on about her troubles.
  • Remind her of God's love for her.
  • Reinforce the fact that God has a plan and a purpose for each of us. She is no exception.

Your intervention could help a family get through the rough times. By showing someone, that you care you will send the message that God has not forgotten her. You can be the hands and feet of God.

If a person cries easily, constantly puts herself down or has recurring depression that interferes with family life, please encourage her to see a doctor. The Lord does not want us or our friends to suffer alone. He wants us to love one another and encourage each other. Mental illness is real and can be treated. If left untreated, or not treated appropriately, it can destroy as it has in the Yates family. I used to think that if I was mentally ill then there was no point in living. I did not want to be a burden to anyone. God continues to be my source of strength. He is faithful and marvelous. He has shown me that I can have an abundant life filled with smiles and laughter, good times and good friends. I can use this illness to reach out, help others, and thus I can become the person that God intended me to be.

Dianne Stuckey-Killian is available to speak to your group. You may contact her at:
936/273-9188 dskillian@cox-internet.com 392 Cumberland Trail Conroe, TX, 77302

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