In many ways, Ryan Neal was not the picture of someone with mental illness.
A large group of tight-knit friends, parents still married after 34 years, an entertainer since the cradle. Photographs show Neal’s ear-to-ear smile.
Pictures and memories are all his family have left of him, because inside, a different story unfolded. Neal had bipolar disorder, a diagnosis characterized by unusual shifts in moods from extreme highs to severe lows.
In January, Neal took his own life. He was 28, and left behind grieving parents and friends struggling to adjust to life without him, and repeatedly asking themselves the same question.
Neal was like many who suffer from mental illness, who felt lost in a healthcare system not designed for them, or in a society that doesn’t understand their diagnoses. There were 38,364 suicides in the country in 2010, according to the American Association of Suicidology. That’s 105 per day.
Diagnosed with mental illnesses at a very young age, Ryan Neal started to believe what was said about him. That he was a “problem child.” He even wore a ring that said “psycho.”
While his father, Mike Neal, said he can’t “understand how a person can be so hopeless, so despondent, that they don’t have any other choice,” Trish Neal said they don’t blame their son.
“We love him,” she said.
“There is a difference between blame and responsibility,” Mike Neal said. “Ryan is responsible for taking his life, but I don’t blame him. Bipolar is the cause of my son’s death. He just lost the fight that night.”
Stigma can impede getting help
Society is gradually accepting those with mental illnesses, but prejudices and discrimination, unfortunately, often go hand-in-hand with a diagnosis.
“It’s scary to individuals because there’s not a lot of knowledge about [mental illness],” said Despina McBride, clinical manager of the McHenry County Crisis Program. “People view it as the fault of the individual diagnosed or as a negative.”
But those with mental illness often are fully-functioning members of their communities.
“The vast majority of the people we’re working with are in the community; many people are well-known people in the community living with mental illness,” said Rick Kirchoff, president of the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Stigmas these individuals face sometimes can mean a reluctance to get needed help.
“People are afraid to be diagnosed with mental illness because they don’t want to be connected with something that’s out of control, or people think that they are out of control,” said Chris Gleason, director of Rosecrance McHenry County.
“A lot of what we deal with is deal with shame about mental illness, or they’ve hidden it for so long it’s gotten out of control and worse than it should have.”
That was the case with Ryan: As he grew older, he started to reject the medication he had been prescribed. When he was 18, he gave up on them completely.
“He didn’t like the labeling that went with it. He said it was mind controlling. I think from when he was in high school, he didn’t like the way he was treated differently,” Trish Neal said.
“I tried so many times to get him to go to the doctors,” she continued. “I knew he needed medication, by his mood, the highs and lows, the manic episodes.”
Added Mike: “He didn’t want people to know, so he didn’t take his medication.”
The January night she last saw her son is one of those moments – a mother’s worst nightmare – that Trish Neal will never forget.
It was a Sunday night, and Ryan was in one of his moods. He didn’t come to dinner, and just wanted to be left alone. Still, Trish made Ryan a plate of food and went to bed.
On Monday, she woke up and Ryan was still in his basement bedroom. When he still hadn’t stirred by 3 p.m., Trish thought she better check on him. That’s when she found that he had hanged himself.
“If I had known, I wouldn’t have gone to bed that night,” she said.
Heavy tears run down her face when she remembers that day, the last words she said to him, and especially at hearing the words “committed suicide,” a phrase she refuses to use.
“My son didn’t commit a crime. He was a good person,” she said through a growing lump in her throat. “I don’t know why he decided to do that. I don’t know what made him do that. I never expected this.”
Though Ryan lived an outward life not characterized by his diagnosis, he still felt the stigma that many with mental illnesses endure.
It’s not to say Ryan was without his own troubles. Past mistakes and legal problems followed him through adulthood, making it difficult to find a job. The extreme lows he experienced made it hard to keep employment.
But his struggles started much earlier.
Growing up, he was labeled with an alphabet soup of disorders – BD, ED, LD, ADHD. Eventually the “problem child” was put into a separate learning environment from his peers. He graduated from Jacobs High School in 2002.
What’s needed to stop stigma in its tracks, local mental health leaders say, is an open dialogue.
“I think the biggest thing for stigma to make it more of a conversation topic,” Gleason said. “As much as we’re [talking about] cancer, I would love to see that sort of acceptance with mental health.”
But it may be harder to do than it seems. Many people often associate mental illness with violence.
“If you look at Sandy Hook or all those horrific events, people want to pin that on mental health, so that’s the public’s perception of mental health,” Gleason said.
“One time we looked at these people as what we called the crazies, and that’s not the case,” Kirchoff said. “These are people who are dealing with issues of brains that are ill, and can easily be treated through talk-type therapy and also medication.”
In the face of their loss, Trish and Mike Neal have taken on a new role as outspoken advocates for suicide prevention.
“Mental health issues are very real. Society needs to get its head around that,” Mike said.
“I’m not going to be embarrassed or ashamed of him,” Trish said of Ryan. “It wasn’t him. It was his illness.”