Mental Illness and Our Fear of It

Rethink Mental Illness
Rethink Mental Illness (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the latest mass shooting in this nation at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. has come the usual spate of debates about gun control and the reasons these mass shootings continue to occur. Frankly, the discussion over gun control, whether or not to have it or to make people get background checks, is annoying. It is clear that in terms of policy this nation’s lawmakers are deeply divided. Gun control and background checks are seen by far too many as just another intrusion of government into the private lives and affairs of American citizens. There exists this absolutely maddening opinion that more guns, not fewer, are the answer to mass shootings.

In the debate, however, mental illness continually comes up as a root cause for the mass shootings. After Sandy Hook, there was extended discussion about it, and today, revelations about the mental health of Aaron Alexis are steadily coming to light.  That Alexis was mentally ill is clear. What is also clear is that American society is sorely inept at dealing with it.

I heard a TED talk where the presenter said something that is a no-brainer:  if we diagnosed and treated mental illnesses early on, we would have less severe mental illness in people overall. He used as a comparison point that in all diseases where diagnosis and treatment begins early, the seriousness of those diseases diminishes and in some cases, the given illness can disappear altogether.

Not so with mental illness. It seems that we are deathly afraid of it. Children who have mental illness are too often labeled as “bad” or behavior problems, and kind of banned to the fringes of society.  These sick children grow into sick adults, who now also carry a fair amount of anger and resentment over how they have been treated due to their illness. And …they grow up believing they are deficient and bad and not worthy of a good life. That cannot be good for any psyche, much less for a psyche made tender by mental illness.

People do not want to admit that they are mentally ill because of the stigma, and in hospital waiting rooms, I am told they are often totally disrespected while they wait for treatment. A young woman shared with me that she was having a crisis and went to an emergency room. She was relegated to a chair in the waiting room, and later, to a gurney in the emergency room. She sat in that waiting room for 23 hours, without seeing a doctor all that time. While she was there, nurses, she said, hollered to her from nurses’ stations: “Are you suicidal? Are you having hallucinations? Are you hearing voices?” This young woman felt humiliated, disrespected, and angry. People began to look at her with fear in their eyes, she said.  It was like I was a nothing, a nobody, she said, just because I have a mental illness.

WIth that kind of treatment, it is no wonder people do not talk about it, and do not get treated.  I was prescribed Cymbalta to be taken because the drug does something to treat a condition I have called neurocardiogenic syncope. That’s a fancy way of saying I get dizzy, and the Cymbalta, taken with another drug, helps control it. When I listed my drugs on an application to participate in the Susan G. Komen  3-day walk to raise money for breast cancer research, walk officials, looking at my meds,  decided I had depression and would not let me participate! I had raised thousands of dollars (which still went toward the research, thankfully) but because I was taking that drug, I was no longer considered a viable walker. My doctor wrote the walk officials to let them know that that’s why I was taking the drug, but they would not budge. And now, I’ve changed my health insurance, and the company will not cover the drug at all. So, illogically, I guess they would rather risk me getting dizzy at the wheel of a car and crashing and damn near killing myself or someone else, rather than covering that drug so that I can handle my dizziness . I will never attempt to walk in the 3-Day Walk for cancer again.

Clearly, there is a problem. Chances are that everyone has some level of mental illness, but for those who have serious mental illness, there is really nobody who can say “it’ll be all right if you admit it and get treated.” Real-life experiences do not support that kind of support or encouragement.

My prayer is that the stigma against mental illness will begin to lift and that mental illness will be respected as an illness that needs to be treated, not run from. Those who are suffering from it deserve better. And those who would be victims because a mentally ill person finally unwinds deserve better as well.

A candid observation …

 

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