Let’s talk about mental health and illnesses. Seriously, let’s talk. Mental health issues run rampant in society, resulting in all sorts of problems and heart aches. One of the biggest problems society faces is that that we don’t understand mental illness. This leads to inadequate levels of support, both for people struggling with these conditions, and their families who struggle along with them. We still experience too much shame and ignorance around mental health problems.
I’ve known periods of debilitating depression. Not the gloomy, too-many-gray-days-in-a-row sort of down mood. I’m talking about the sort of depression that made it difficult to get out of bed, get dressed and bother to eat, let alone actually accomplish anything. I have also struggled with relatively mild bouts of anxiety and panic. Fortunately, at those times, I was in situations where compassionate family, friends and colleagues, along with professionals, helped me. Their help helped. Today I rarely have a down mood that lasts more than a day or two and most days range from good to great.
Mental Health and Family Trees
Various members of my extended family have dealt with one of these: alcoholism, depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, Asperger’s and turrets. Some functioned quite well in spite of the challenges; others have not. Just as some with cancer go into full remission, while others do not.
I recently came upon this insight from author Susan Page’s The Matriarch: Barbara Bush and the Making of an American Dynasty. She wrote a chapter about a period of depression Barbara experienced. “Barbara Bush’s experience made her more empathetic and less judgmental toward people who were facing emotional problems. ‘I used to think that you could control your emotions, that you just needed to think of others and not yourself,’ (Barbara) said. But afterward, ‘I also realize you cannot handle everything alone. And when things go out of control, you should seek help.’”
Finding Helpful Help
It seems obvious that help should be helpful, but it too often is not. One of my grandfathers died in a mental hospital in the 1950’s. Back then it was the practice to drug people into a zombie state if they presented symptoms of mental illness. The only explanation I ever got about this was he had a nervous breakdown. He came to this country as a young teenager with three older brothers near the start of the 20th century. Being German, at a time when we were at war with Germany, I can only imagine the harassment he must have experienced with his German accent and name. None-the-less, he scraped together the money to start his own business, which he lost in the Great Depression. I suppose that, combined with another war with Germany, led to his nervous breakdown.
I knew virtually nothing about him, and nothing about his mental health issues, until I was in college. I was visiting my aunt, his daughter. She made some reference to his situation. From my response she could tell I had no idea what she was talking about. So, she told me. My father never said a word about his father. I recall only one conversation with my mother about this.
I know. That sounds strange. But that is the impact mental illness has on the family and loved ones. The shame is often so great families feel obliged to hide the truth, and often the person, from public scrutiny. Mental health issues are too often considered a character flaw, rather than a health issue.
Last summer my husband and I pulled onto our street from vacation to find two emergency vehicles parked in front of the house next door. Due to HIPPA laws, the medics couldn’t tell us what was going on, but I saw one of them making a circle with his finger around his temple and mouthing, “crazy” to a colleague. They told us she was going to a local hospital for evaluation. She returned a couple of days later. I’ve lived next to this woman for five years. She is known in the neighborhood as “that crazy lady.” Neighbors advised me to leave her alone. I’ve only spoken to her three times, for a total of about five minutes. Those conversations were disjointed and impossible to follow. I rarely saw her, though occasionally I saw a car in the driveway.
The Ethical Dilemma of Intervening
The car belonged to the couple who came to do yard and housework. They’d worked for her parents and now did what they could to help her by bringing groceries and doing errands. They told me she was a hermit, sabotaged all her out-of-state sons’ efforts to get her to move where she’d get help, and lived in constant fear someone was breaking into the house.
A neighbor who knew her before she became a recluse, visited her and then told me she was seeing her image in a hall mirror and didn’t recognize the image as her own. She lived-in constant fear someone was in the house to hurt her. I called Adult Protective Services. It took several months, but eventually they were able to work with one of her sons to get him legal guardianship. She recently, finally, moved to a place where she gets the help she needs. For months, maybe years, she lived alone. Frightened. Panicked. Resistant to help. Known in the neighborhood as “that crazy lady.”
As a society and as family members, we struggle with the ethical dilemma between honoring an individual’s rights and intervening when they engage in destructive behavior that causes them and others problems.
The Inadequate Power of Positive Thinking
We tell people to think positive, look on the bright side, and just get over it. A positive attitude goes a long way toward improving our outlook on life, but that alone is not enough to repair a broken leg, reverse the spread of cancer, or cure pneumonia. We know that physical illnesses require medical intervention. Mental illnesses often do too. We don’t think someone diagnosed with cancer has a character flaw. Yet that is often how we respond to someone struggling with any number of mental illnesses.
Let’s talk about that. Do you or someone close to you struggle with mental health issues? Do you have the sort of support you need? Are you able to discuss this with those closest to you? I hope so. We’ve made remarkable progress in curing and managing cancer and a whole host of other physical illnesses. It is time we put the same effort into addressing mental illnesses.
Though it may feel like you’re alone with your struggles, there are many resources available to help. You will find some at the National Institute of Mental Health. You may also find these blogs of interest: Help for a heroin addict or Living with someone with dementia.