A Person with Mental Illness, Not a Mentally Ill Person

Posted: November 1, 2010
A Person with Mental Illness, Not a Mentally Ill Person

Donna Morrissey invests in brain and behavior research hoping for development of better diagnostic tools for people, like her son, living with mental illness.

The misdiagnosis of Donna Morrissey’s son, Michael, mobilized her as an advocate for mental health research.

At 22, Michael started to experience auditory hallucinations and was feeling increasingly threatened, Morrissey said. One day he heard a hostile voice while alone at work and called his mother. Donna and Michael went to the emergency room and Michael was admitted to the hospital.

Based on his symptoms and his father’s history of treatment for schizophrenia, Michael was diagnosed with schizophrenia and began treatment. Morrissey noted that the diagnosis of her ex-husband’s illness was “assumed” – doctors were hesitant to diagnose him with schizophrenia because he didn’t fully fit the profile, but they didn’t know how else to respond to his symptoms. She believes doctors initially responded to Michael’s symptoms by basing their diagnosis primarily on his father’s history.

Following a month of treatment, with no improvement and with his symptoms getting worse, Michael went back to his outpatient psychiatrist and said he didn’t think schizophrenia was the correct diagnosis. Michael soon had another episode where he was in crisis, his mother said, which resulted in another trip to the emergency room. This time, a new team of physicians evaluated Michael and came to the conclusion that he was more likely suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

With this new diagnosis and a different course of treatment, “the results were amazing,” Morrissey said. “It struck me then that the diagnosis process is faulty. What quantitative result or test leads to a diagnosis? The more researchers can identify and develop the right criteria to distinguish one mental illness from another, the more defined and effective a treatment can be.”

Added to the weight of the diagnosis was the fact that Michael did not have health insurance at the time.

“It’s very frustrating when someone you care about is struggling with something and there’s nothing you can do,” Morrissey said. But Donna Morrissey was far from inactive. Her son’s struggle with PTSD and his looming medical bills prompted her to host a benefit concert.

Michael’s PTSD also sent Morrissey to the Internet where she found the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation. “The Brain & Behavior Research Foundation was one of the only organizations speaking of mental illness in positive and hopeful terms,” Morrissey said. “I thought, ‘Finally, somebody gets it!’ These are solvable problems, not a diagnosis that says, ‘Close the book on your life.’”

Morrissey’s Benefit Concert for Mental Health donates proceeds from the event to the Brain & Behavior Research Foundation to support the mental health research she believes is so important. “As I watched everything Michael was going through I decided this was what needed more support – researchers digging to find better diagnostic tools to improve people’s lives,” Morrissey said. “Another benefit to better diagnostic tools will be to improve the response of health care professionals to people’s symptoms.”

Michael’s PTSD finds its roots in childhood trauma. From elementary school through high school, Michael was bullied by his peers. Michael’s mother wasn’t aware of the full extent of the bullying. “The problem with bullying is that there is pressure to not tell people about what’s going on,” Morrissey observed. “One of the first things children hear when they begin school is to not be a tattle-tale. And if you don’t want to make the situation worse, you won’t say anything.”

Michael’s behaviors in school were different from his classmates’ because Michael is partially deaf, is dyslexic and has other nonverbal learning disabilities, Morrissey said. “He did not fit in with the cultural norm. Children who were more aggressive recognized, and took advantage of, his more passive personality.” Michael became a target and so began years of name calling, pushes and shoves, violent physical threats, and ongoing fear for his safety.

The trauma from years of bullying added to the normal pressures Michael faced in life, and led to his development of PTSD, which is now successfully treated with therapy and medication. “Michael is doing well,” his mother said. “He works full time and is engaged to be married. He is trying to turn his negative experience with bullying into a positive one and is thinking about how he can share his experience with children and schools.”

“I’m very proud of him and his resiliency to move beyond his challenges and not let those define him,” Morrissey said. “He’s a person with mental illness, not a mentally ill person.”

The third annual Benefit Concert for Mental Health was held May 13, 2011 at Daylesford Abbey in Paoli, Pennsylvania.