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'While You Were Out' explores a family's struggles dealing with mental health in an 'era of silence'

Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, and the author of While You Were Out, Meg Kissinger.
Former Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter, and the author of "While You Were Out," Meg Kissinger.

*This conversation has mentions of suicide.*

Mental illness is still a taboo subject for some, but it was almost never discussed in the 1950s and 1960s. For families like Meg Kissinger's, that meant a lot of suffering in silence, private and public torment, and maybe paradoxically, a lot of love and laughs. Kissinger wrote about her family's struggles with mental illness in her new book While You Were Out.

The former Journal Sentinel reporter will be at the Milwaukee Public Library’s Centennial Hall on Sept. 5 to talk about her book.

While you were out Book Cover
While you were out Book Cover

Born as the fourth oldest of eight kids, Kissinger entered a large, post-World War II family with many unspoken mental health illnesses. "Growing up, I never heard the expression 'mental illness' for many years, you know, after I left home," she says.

During her time with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Kissigner was drawn to stories about mental health and came to better understand how her own family's struggles, and the stigma surrounding mental health problems.

"We give labels, you know, we call people bipolar or schizophrenic, or we throw kind of terms at them, those are often very squishy. There's still so much that we don't know about the cause of mental illness," Kissinger says. "We certainly don't know much about a cure, or even really how to treat people very well."

While You Were Out: An Intimate Family Portrait of Mental Illness in an Era of Silence was an opportunity for Kissinger to process and explore her own life and family history. She writes about her mother who experienced anxiety and depression, her father who was bipolar, and two of her siblings who ended their lives. Those experiences and her time covering mental illness gave Kissinger a clearer understanding of navigating mental health with the people we love.

"I guess then the burden is on us to kind of suck it up and stand with those people and try to try to give them comfort because they're our brothers and sisters, and we are called to love them," she says.


Joy is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
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