Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Discussing Mental Illness

by Dick Mac

Many of us have received rudimentary first-aid training and can stop or staunch someone's bleeding, we know about the Heimlich Maneuver and CPR, and we might even know how to perform these, we have all learned lessons (effective or not) about making a sick person comfortable and we use phrases like "Feed a cold. Starve a fever." Or is it the other way around? No matter which it is, we all have some experience addressing sickness and injury, and it is the rare person who runs away from a physically ill or wounded person in need.

Most of us have no skills in addressing a mentally ill person, never mind assisting them in getting help. There is a stigma, there is fear about discussing the issue either with a person, or with others around them.

Mental illness is mysterious to us, and we often develop dismissive attitudes about it. We take positions about a person's decisions and choices, as if they have actually analyzed their situation and said: "Yeah! Paranoid schizophrenia: that's for me," or "I'm going to become a drug addict to deal with this confusion."

Mental illness is not choice; and although there are entire industries based on "depression" and "attention-deficit" it does not mean that every consumer in those fields is mentally well. Many depressed, paranoid, sociopathic, and psychotic people need real treatment.

Drugs are one treatment, and drugs are the treatment of choice in our society. Drugs are tangible, can be produced by a manufacturer, and bought and sold like commodities. As a society, we accept solutions that can be purchased and we debate not their efficacy, but their expense. In the big picture, though, drugs only address the symptoms of mental illness, not the underlying psychological problems.

Fundamentally, we are ill-prepared to have a conversation about mental illness, because it cannot be quantified like a broken bone or a virus. Mental illness cannot have a packaged solution that is sold in one form over-the-counter and in another form by prescription-only, its treatment is intangible to those looking in from the outside, and some who suffer mild forms of mental illnesses and still function tend to believe that people with more severe forms of the same condition should be able to "buck-up" and move on.

Many people suffer mental illness at low levels, and we sometimes refer to the manifestations as "ticks" and "quirks" and "habits" and, generally speaking, these are not debilitating problems. Left untreated, however, some mental illness that seems "irritating" at one point could develop into a serious mental health problem.

It is easy to dismiss mental illness because we don't understand it, and dismiss mental health because it is expensive and historically was not covered by medical insurance; and dismiss it we do, regularly.

Perhaps it's time we say that mental illness deserves the attention that every other illness is afforded, and look with suspicion upon those who would tell us the purchase of a pill will address the problem.

There were times in the not-too-distant past when people dared not discuss aloud the issues of cancer, sexual dysfunction, and AIDS; but today those issues are discussed open and freely. Perhaps we can move mental illness out of the shadows, and into the social dialog.

One side benefit might be a reduction in the number of manufacturers and their physician-clients who simply prescribe pills to address anything that might remotely appear to be a mental illness. And, perchance to dream, those who need treatment might get it.

I was sparked to write this after reading this article :
Getting Someone to Psychiatric Treatment Can Be Difficult and Inconclusive, at the New York Times site.


ckb said...

The tendency to prescribe medication rather than offer any real addressing of the issues, coupled with the fact that most insurance programs simply don't recognize mental illness as a diagnosis for which treatment ought to be paid at the same rate as, say, broken bones, has virtually insured that I have stayed sick. I know I have problems, and I know some of them are mere quirks while others have at times threatened my functionality if not my life. But after years of having been put on every new drug that hit the market coupled with having claims for any other therapy denied, I said to hell with the mental health industry and all the insurance company games and have tried to rely on a combination of prayer, sharing with others and, at times, just toughing it out.

This has made me hard to live with at times (most times!) and, at my worst (and we are talking post-alcohol use here), a terrible liability, emotional, financial and sometimes even physical, to myself and others. The damages run the gamut from neglected ambitions to broken relationships.

It makes me sad. I know there are many like me -- not sick enough to be locked up and not well enough to function as happy, useful souls. Until the way our society treats mental illness changes, there will be a lot of "sub-damaged" folks like me -- never well enough to be who they could have been, but at least not sick enough to do real damage outside the immediate circle. It's terribly sad.

Thanks for writing this article.

ckb said...

(should clarify the above and say not "post-alcohol use" but "after years of sobriety/abstinence from alcohol.")

Again, thanks for this article. If love could cure us, I know so many who would be well, including people in my life whom I dearly love.

JoeJ0082 said...

Well said DM!!! And as always, a great read!!