Pennie's Story

One Family's Journey With Mental Illness

Pennie vividly remembers the summer ten years ago when it all began. Her beautiful and talented teenager went from being a loving daughter, college-bound student and cheerleader to an entirely different person. She became moody, withdrawn and sometimes violent, engaging in rebellious and destructive behaviors. Pennie and her husband were perplexed, sad and angry.

After many examinations, doctors determined that obvious physical causes including hormonal imbalances or a brain tumor were not a factor. Like many parents, Pennie and her husband were shocked and at first unbelieving when their only child was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder.

To complicate matters, they learned that she did not qualify for their health insurance plan when she was eighteen because she was no longer enrolled in school.

Over the next ten years, they turned to the public mental health system and other venues for help. The path was long and hard. There were many visits to hospital emergency rooms and the Austin State Hospital. Brushes with the criminal justice system became common occurrences. Worst of all was the nagging fear that they were responsible and failed to recognize the symptoms earlier to avert the situation.

Austin Travis County Mental Health Mental Retardation Center staff member Keith Morris has facilitated monthly meetings for family members of persons with severe and persistent mental illnesses since 1991. "Just knowing that we're not the only ones facing this has been tremendously healing," says Pennie. Being part of a support group gave Pennie and her family tremendous emotional support through the people they met and provided them with an opportunity to learn about their daughter's illness. "Keith Morris and the parent support group were a godsend," says Pennie, who has now attended regularly for more years than she can remember.

And although at this time there is no cure for mental illness, Pennie's daughter, who will soon celebrate her thirtieth birthday, has achieved recovery and is living independently. "Living with mental illness is a journey", says Pennie, "but I am thankful that help is available."