Mental Illness and the Carnegie Family: An Interview with Millicent Monks


millicentMillicent Monks was born into the legendary Carnegie family, in which serious mental illness has affected four generations of women. Mental illness has played a prominent and overwhelming role in her life. Her search for answers led her to Jungian analysis, meditation and sutras, which have helped her to find a delicate peace amid the devastating mental illness in her family. She shares her story in a new book called Songs of Three Islands: A Story of Mental Illness in an Iconic American Family, hoping that it will help other families, especially parents of mentally ill children. I have the privilege of interviewing her here.

1. Our society doesn’t understand that a person raised in a wealthy family can suffer from depression. We are made to believe that money buys happiness. Can you comment on how mental illness does not discriminate on the basis of wealth, and on the specific challenges or pressures experienced by someone both wealthy and mentally ill?

I’m afraid money doesn’t prevent a wealthy person from death, depression, mental illness, or taxes anymore than money buys love; but it is certainly true that having the funds to afford good treatment is available to wealthy families and that those who cannot afford proper care and treatment are at a terrible disadvantage in this country.

I think any family that has a seriously mentally ill member, maybe especially a child, whether wealthy or poor has a tremendous challenge, especially the mother. First there still is the stigma of someone being mentally ill, and jail is often an answer in this country rather than help for both the rich and poor. Another really serious problem is the terrible shame felt, especially by mothers, and the stigma that makes them silent.

To answer the question, as I have written in my book, our daughter was in a mental institution for seven years. This was painful for our family and for her. She is now living near us.

Of course, for a mother and father it was a depressing and often sad situation. Even today it is not always easy for her or us. We have friends, some well off or some not so well off, whose children roam the streets of our city eating out of garbage cans. The challenge I hope to deal with (in my book too) is to say mental illness is still in the dark ages and those most able to speak out are often silenced by shame.

Here is a quote from the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, “All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues, but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out. These mental health issues pose a greater risk to our well-being than, say, the Afghan Taliban or the Al Qaeda terrorists, yet in the police society there is still something of a code of silence around these topics.” This code of silence is devastating and lonely and unproductive. If in any way my book and my experience with mental illness in my family can help open a door I would be very grateful.songs_cov3d

2. How should a mother handle the stigma and the rebuke of other mothers if she is open about her child’s mental illness? You say we need to be more open; however, is there a support in place for mothers who are open?

I have spoken to a lot of mothers individually and as part of my in speeches. It still amazes me how they simply cannot appear to speak out. Perhaps it is the terrible debilitating shame we all share as a mother with a child we can so often not help. I hope again in some small way my book will be support for mothers to be more able to share and be more open.

Originally published on Sanity Break at

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Therese Borchard
I am a writer and chaplain trying to live a simple life in Annapolis, Maryland.

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2 Responses
  1. Thank you for this beautiful article.
    We need better understanding of mental illness. What is causing the epidemic of depression & estrangement? It’s takes lot of courage to come out and seek help.