KeepHealthCare.ORG – Stigma of mental illness still exists, and it costs lives | Columns
Thirteen years ago, I wrote an obituary for my older sister, who at age 70 committed suicide. It was a long article, for I somehow had to make some sense of the bright, funny woman becoming obsessed with taking her own life. It was the fourth time that year she had attempted to end her life, to escape the shame she felt about her mental illness, to leave the swirling mania that left her exhausted and in fear that people would know what she had done and where she had been during the hospitalizations.
More than an attempt to accept what had seemed inevitable for more than 40 years, despite medication, therapy, hospitalizations and a supportive family, that article sought to do what we are still trying to do: Make people aware of the damage that the stigma of mental illness does to those suffering from a chronic mental illness or situational depression.
As is so often the case, my sister’s bipolar illness manifested during adolescence. To my parents’ credit, they did what few parents did in the late 1940s; they sought psychiatric help for their daughter. She had productive adolescent years: developed close friendships, won a scholarship to a good college and then a fellowship to study for a master’s degree. She was the only teenager in the history of the Charlotte Opera Society to be a paid member of the company. She was pretty, smart and funny. And she was suffering from a mental illness that went undiagnosed until the mid-1970s. It was only in retrospect that we knew she had suffered from bipolar disorder those many years ago and that it had not been properly diagnosed and treated.
She was many things: a talented vocalist, scholar, gardener, counselor and good friend. She was also a woman whose bipolar illness she tried to hide while being terrified people would guess the truth. She was courageous in her effort to function fully in a world that does not understand how to deal with mental illness within the context of normal social interactions. Finally, she could no longer sustain the tension of presenting to the world a face of normalcy while fighting the illness that sucked out enormous energy and spawned the excesses of mania only to resolve itself in obsession with suicide. We talked often of the obsession, and I was her partner in trying to find the right therapist, medications and structure that could manage the illness and banish the obsession, a process that exhausted us both over the years.
The question we must all ask is why we make people afraid to acknowledge their depression, anxiety, chronic mental illness. We do not require that people hide their cancer, though there was a time when it, too, was considered an illness not to be discussed, as though the devil himself had planted it. The fear of exposure exacerbates the anxiety of dealing with mental illness, and in many instances results in isolation or suicide. What if someone could say without fear of stigma, I have bipolar disorder just as he could say I have diabetes? That is the point we must reach if we are to be truly supportive of people.
I am not certain things have changed very much in the ensuing years; we talk about mental illness openly and quote statistics that acknowledge the number of people it directly affects and the increase in the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression and the increase in drug abuse and suicide, but are we asking the right questions? What is real awareness? It must go beyond recognition of the problem to acknowledge the conditions we are creating in our own communities that contribute to that increase in mental illness and suicide, of drug abuse we discuss. Statistics tell us only that we have a problem. How is our individual and collective behavior impacting the increase in mental illness? How do we learn how to stay mentally healthy ourselves and help others stay mentally healthy? It is not enough to be aware; we must be involved and create personal relationships, institutional relationships that actively support mental health.
This month that is coming to a close is Mental Health Awareness Month; the Talbot County Council issued a proclamation acknowledging the importance of removing the stigma of mental illness and the importance of providing adequate education and treatment of mental illness. As the president of the board of directors of the Mental Health Association of the Eastern Shore, I was grateful for their action, and I urge more training of parents, teachers, clergy, employers and others in how to recognize the signs of mental health problems and how to respond to them.
We must also have the courage to realize that sometimes there is nothing we can do to change another person’s journey. We must acknowledge that sometimes we have to come to terms, as I did, with the fact that the only peace my much loved sister would ever find was in God’s love. But if we are more accepting of people whose perceptions are different, whose brains are wired a different way, there will be less isolation, fewer escapes into drugs or death.
Carolyn Ewing is president of the Board of Directors of the Mental Health Association of the Eastern Shore.