On May 1, 1995, Daniel and Sue Hanson were taken aback when their 21-year-old son Joel telephoned from college saying his true identity was Jesus Christ.
Today, Joel is 33, and one of more than two million Americans with schizophrenia. The National Alliance on Mental Illness website defines it as a “devastating” brain disorder that “interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, to distinguish reality from fantasy, to manage emotions, make decisions, and relate to others.”
“A new person had emerged from our perspective,”said 62-year-old Daniel Hanson, a professor at Augsburg College, referring to Joel. “He suddenly was someone we didn’t know, someone who was frightening. Most of us have heard just enough of mental illness to be frightened by it, but not enough to know what to do (when it affects your family).’
Hanson, a cancer survivor, said society offers a certain amount of respect to people with cancer and to survivors. But it often doesn’t offer that same respect to people with mental illness.
“Instead of being stamped with courage, you get stamped with a stigma,”he said. “And that stigma spreads to the entire family. People often think we had something to do with it. As parents (of a young adult with schizophrenia), you have all these mixed-up feelings. You are frightened, scared of the unknown, and blaming yourself. It’s an emotional roller coaster ride.”
Hanson described his son as a kind, caring, sociable, loving person. Though friendly, Joel has difficulty maintaining lasting friendships, probably because he still believes he is God. Periodically, Joel will stay off his medication and try to “transcend,”which means he will quit taking in food and liquid in order to “leave his physical body,”said Hanson.
Because of trying to “transcend”and other issues, Joel recently spent four months in a hospital.
Hanson advised parents, “The sooner you can connect with other families and a support system, the better. The process of accepting the ‘new’ person is so important, in order to move out of the blame stage into acceptance. I didn’t cause it, can’t cure it, can’t control it, but I can cope and care for this person.’
Hanson’s wife is on a state board of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. In 2005, Daniel Hanson authored, Room for J, which chronicled his journey of caring for his son.