Sunday, January 13, 2013

"The Mental Illness Thing"

Gun control. Mental Illness.

I do not own a gun, I've never fired a gun and I will most likely never purchase one. But I am familiar with mental illness.

I run a potential risk in writing about such a personal topic, but the internal intuitive signal for me to write (tightness in the chest, dizziness in the head) keeps bubbling up any time I turn on the TV or read something in the news about the connection between gun control and mental illness.

In a complex debate, my complaint is a simple one: Stop marginalizing the mentally ill. If I hear one more NRA supporter talk about the need to create a national data base of the mentally ill (which already exists in 38 states, including mine), I think I will have to (excuse the extremely inappropriate yet pun-fitting phrase) shoot myself.

I am not even going to touch the Newtown tragedy. That is not what this is about for me. What this is about is the pervasive fueling of the fire that is already alive and well beyond the sanctuary of Behavioral Health professionals. The fact is, a large portion of our society downright sucks at understanding, accepting, and treating psychiatric disorders.

The good doctors out there who get it and know how to effectively partner with patients to achieve mental health are saints. If you get to work with a healthcare professional who understands mental illness, you are one of the lucky ones. I will never forget the feeling of freeness and the relinquishing of shame and guilt the first time a doctor likened mental illness to Diabetes. She said there is no difference, just two different ailments of the body. Mental illnesses come from an imbalance in the brain – chemicals that are not balanced for optimal functioning – that can be corrected via medication and auxiliary treatments, such as exercise, talk therapy and monitoring mood. Diabetes comes from an imbalance in hormones – not enough insulin production or a resistance to it – that can be corrected via medication and auxiliary treatments, such as exercise, diet management, and monitoring blood glucose.

This morning I watched Meet the Press. There was one political talking head in particular who kept saying the same phrase, over and over, during their gun control debate. He kept saying, "The mental illness thing..." As in, "We need to get the mental illness thing figured out... We need to make sure we address the mental illness thing when it comes to purchasing firearms." 

As I sat there, sipping my coffee and letting my waffles go cold, I could only think, "You idiot."

I find myself thinking about the Obesity issue in America. I think of a parallel to the gun debate, and I think of how many millions of enraged diabetics there would be if the political talking heads on Sunday mornings said things like, "Well, when it comes to junk food and obesity, we need to first asses the diabetes thing"... "If diabetics continue to get their hands on fast food, who knows where the obesity epidemic will lead us..." "Afterall, it's those untreated diabetics who are the highest risk factors, right? They are the ones who don't know how to control themselves when given access to junk food, and they will be the ones to continue tipping the scales in America's fight against Obesity."

Of course, the parallel is somewhat asinine, but you get my drift.

I'm mad. And frustrated. And also somewhat ashamed. Why? I think about the other young people, the young adults out there who are struggling with Depression, Anorexia Nervosa (yes, it's a mental illness), Schizophrenia, Bipolar Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and all the other chemical imbalances that impact brain chemistry. I wonder. With the Media awash with even more negative chatter over Mental Illness, who the hell would want to reach out for help now?

Like other diseases and disorders, Mental Illness affects the whole family. I was moved to read about the mother who spoke out about her son who could hypothetically one day be involved in a tragic incident like Newtown, Aurora, Virgina Tech, or Columbine. It took guts for that mother to speak out and write a public piece on her untreated/undiagnosed mentally imbalanced child. When one decides to reach out an speak up about Mental Illness, there aren't the same open arms like the ones that exist for cancer or cataracts or car accidents. Instead, the response from onlookers to the onset of Mental Illness in a family member, co-worker, or friend,  can be ambiguous and apprehensive. And for the successfully treated members of society who take medication, no longer experience symptoms but were once were sick (we are called "High Functioning"), we keep it locked up like a dirty secret, worried that bosses or friends or well-meaning HR professionals might fuck up the hard earned success and peace we've carved out in our lives. It doesn't help when you've got someone like Britney Spears as a spokesperson. But celebrities like Catherine Zeta-Jones and Jane Pauley do.

In a society where the unthinkable occasionally becomes reality, we humans are not always sure how to respond, move on and heal. Instead of debating and hypothesizing and legislating the crap out of the current crisis we find ourselves in with young, disturbed (mostly) men and gun violence, I wish we could come at our analysis and healing from a different angle. Maybe it simply takes distance and time. Perhaps the initial human instinct is to fight rage with rage, fear with fear. But, eventually, when dust settles and hearts attempt to mend, we can tap into our ability to respond to tragedy in an artistic capacity that comforts instead of marginalizes. Right now, parents are devastated. Politicians are determined. But one day we will find a way to respond in a more graceful fashion. We've done it before, when Millions died an unspeakable death, or Over 200,000 people perished in a freak tsunami.

The reason I sat down to write about what is normally an off-limits topic for me is because I am tired of playing defense with myself and I need to speak up about it right now. There is a small part of me that questions, that wonders, that feels like I am one of them. But there is no them. A Collective Them doesn't exist, just like we aren't slapping the fate of the Obesity crisis on those diabetics out there. These are extraordinary tragedies that defy explanation. They are not the collective fault of those who have passed through the doors of a psychiatric ward. Yet the Media is slowly painting a wide swash of red over anyone caught in the net of "Behavioral Health." Any time I hear of something on the news where someone does something "crazy" and guns are involved, I cringe and I say to myself,

"Dammit. They are going to say he has Bipolar Disorder." 

What's sad for me is that there is so much lost in our sometimes archaic treatment and views of people who are diagnosed, treated, and fully functioning with mental illness. Kay Redfield Jamison is probably one of my favorite people I'll never meet, but her books are stunning in their ability to bolster hope and – even a sense of being special? – for those dealing with Mental Illness.

It is comforting to know that amazing humans who have come and gone were just like us. They too were "othered" in a society that could not comprehend their imbalanced brains. Let's not just remember Mental Illness as an association with loner young men and mass shootings. Mental Illness is also associated with people who accomplished great things.

Let's try to remember that, too

1 comment:

  1. YES! Say what no one else is brave (or smart) enough to say! You have a way with words, my friend.