Brian Sandford: Mental-illness issues hit close to home

I turned 38 years old yesterday. Why is that relevant?

It’s part of a confluence of events that have reminded me just how important mental-health care is.

Two of those events — the shootings last year in Connecticut and two years ago in Carson City and the resulting gun-control debate — have united people in an unrecognized way. We all agree people with mental illnesses shouldn’t own firearms.

Another, ex-Assemblyman Steven Brooks’ multiple arrests and unprecedented removal from office, united nearly all of us in our recognition that someone going through instability shouldn’t represent us until he/she gets help.

The latest reminder for me? My mother died when she was 38. She died because science didn’t yet have a way to prevent brilliant people who feel others’ pain far too much from inflicting that pain on themselves. She died because she was mentally ill.

I witnessed the ravages of the illness throughout my childhood. There were ambulance calls to our somewhat-remote home in Ohio. There were inexplicable three-day periods of bliss followed by three weeks of dour remoteness. There were unsent greeting cards scrawled late at night half in English, and half in my mother’s native Danish. And there were apologies for “being the way I am.”

There also was an environment of warm love in our home. My sister and I meant the world to our mother, and she didn’t just tell us. She showed us. She read to us nearly every night when we were young, somehow translating Danish text into English as she formed the words and sometimes even making two poems in different languages rhyme. She spoke five languages and would explain the Latin roots of words, spurring my own love of language that has driven my career and personal interests. She planned weekend trips. She drew art and wrote loving messages on the napkins included with the lunches she packed for us.

I could go on. She died because she had an illness that was before its time when it comes to treatment.

Not everyone affected by such disorders is that unlucky. Historians have speculated that some of the greatest leaders of the past 125 years have suffered from — and perhaps been spurred by — what we now consider mental-health disorders. Certainly, Winston Churchill — who was smart enough to recognize he suffered depression before it was widely recognized and equally intelligently referred to it as his “black dog” — is a great example of this.

Throughout my adulthood, I’ve always seen just one age as a true milestone. Not 40. Not 75. It’s 38. Now that I’m here, I’m grateful to experience the part of upcoming life that my mother didn’t.

We all know someone touched by mental illness. The only thing that divides us is that some of us know it, and some of us don’t. The goal of this column is to unite us in the hope that more and better treatment is on the horizon.

Editor Brian Sandford can be reached at


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