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The Christophers: Mental Illness in an Era of Silence

Tony Rossi, Director of Communications

 

In many ways, Meg Kissinger’s childhood was idyllic. Growing up Irish Catholic in late 1950s/early 1960s Chicago with her mom, dad, and seven brothers and sisters, there were fun times aplenty. But behind closed doors simmered a largely unacknowledged darkness: mental illness. Nobody knew much about mental health at the time, and they certainly didn’t talk about it. That stigma and lack of communication eventually played a role in the suicide of two of Meg’s siblings. As a result, Meg devoted much of her award-winning journalism career to covering the mental health system (or lack thereof) in the United States in order to reduce the stigma around this sensitive topic. She has now shared her story in the memoir “While You Were Out.” We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup.”

For Meg’s parents, the practice of their Catholic faith was an important part of their lives. She reflected, ”It was expressed in different ways, which matched their personalities. My mother was quieter, but I would say her faith was bedrock to everything about her…Every night, no matter what shape she was in, she always knelt by the side of the bed and prayed. That left a big impression on me. My dad was a lot more outgoing, a lot more vocal. He wrestled with his faith a lot…So, I’m glad for that gift of their expression of faith because it stuck with me and has proved to be quite a life raft.”

As years passed, Meg’s sister Nancy expressed suicidal ideations. Her parents supported her as best they could, but eventually she committed suicide at the age of 24. Instead of being open about the truth, however, Meg’s father told everyone to tell people Nancy’s death was an accident. This occurred during an era when Catholic churches might deny someone who committed suicide a funeral Mass because they were considered to be in mortal sin. Thankfully, Nancy was buried in the church, which brought great comfort to her parents.

Never talking about Nancy’s suicide, not even with each other, produced negative long and short-term consequences for the Kissingers. Meg said, ”We began, in time, to show the effects of that, which was turning to the bottle too much ourselves or acting out.” In addition, another one of Meg’s siblings, Danny, went on to kill himself as well. “That just felt like a bomb went off in all of our souls,” Meg recalled.

By the time of Danny’s death, the Catholic Church’s attitude toward those who committed suicide had thankfully evolved to a more compassionate approach. The family received ”so much outreach, love, support, and comfort from the parish,” Meg noted. In addition, her father and brother, Jake, took part in an Archdiocese of Chicago program called Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (L.O.S.S.), which brought them both healing.

Regarding her hopes for those who read “While You Were Out,” Meg concluded, “I want readers to understand that shame is toxic. Shame kills. When we internalize things and we’re not honest with ourselves [or] not honest with each other, it boils inside of you, and you’re singed by that. We need to find ways to talk about how we’re feeling…and speak about these things in very loving, understanding, non-judgmental ways. And that goes both ways. If you’re suffering, you need to have the courage and the humility to say that. Then, on the receiving end, if someone you love is going through something difficult, find the compassion and the care to be with them.”

 

For free copies of the Christopher News Note FIGHTING DEPRESSION, FINDING HOPE, write: The Christophers, 5 Hanover Square, New York, NY 10004; or e-mail: mail@christophers.org 

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