“What everyone, including sometimes the sufferer, fails to see is that recovery from mental illness, like cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, or any other illness, is not an issue of willpower.”
In the aftermath of any high profile suicide or fatal substance overdose there exists a short-lived, technicolor glimpse into our societal failures in providing adequate treatment for mental illness. It becomes painfully apparent that for whatever advancements our culture has made in both technology and medicine, we are still in the dark ages of understanding mental illness.
Public awareness of the nature of these sicknesses borders on abysmal. Even the most caring, well-meaning people hold beliefs about mental health that are wrought with ignorance and misunderstanding. When the initial public shock of the tragic event begins to subside, we’re left with a hot button issue and a litany of viewpoints that scream deep misconception and intolerance.
No one would ever think of saying, “If he really loved his wife, he would have put that cancer behind him and turned over a new leaf.” Yet if we substitute something like alcoholism or depression for cancer, we’d have a set of statements you’d hear almost daily. Suffering from physical disease is understood to be victimizing, but suffering from a disease of the mind is seen as a character flaw or behavioral problem.
Suffering, by its very nature, carries with it implications of a lack of choice in the actual suffering. From a physiological standpoint the sufferer cannot simply see their health return through a decision to no longer suffer from their disease. While no one would ever even think of someone suffering from lymphoma as being able to choose their way out of the illness, sicknesses of the mind are commonly looked upon as if they respond to decision and willpower.
The very word “illness” denotes a clinical problem and a need for a course of treatment. Illnesses of the mind don’t escape that designation, and from the standpoint of treatment follow the traditional disease model from stem to stern. There are volumes filled with psychiatric diagnoses coupled with varieties of treatment, and in many cases the patient is prescribed one or more psychoactive medications. As such there is acknowledgement by the medical community that there is indeed a biochemical or physiological component to these diseases. Yet many family members of patients receiving some sort of treatment will often view the illness as something their loved one will someday “snap out of”.
For many who suffer from mental illness, that magical day never comes. Treatment for these disorders is often individualized, requiring that the physician tailor any therapies to each patient based on intensity or combination of symptoms or presence of past psychological trauma. Where medication is concerned, there is often a trial and error process where medications are substituted while the patient waits to find the “cocktail” that solves whatever collective problems they are experiencing, hopefully without prohibitive side effects. Staring down the barrel of a potential lifelong journey through various shapes and sizes of mental illness treatment that may or may not provide sufficient or timely relief, often a patient will toggle between substance abuse, outright addiction, and suicidal ideation.
The individual at some point reaches the end of their proverbial rope, causing them to feel even more emotionally removed from society and its ideal of what constitutes an acceptable medical condition. This tends to breed more misunderstanding as those who are collaterally affected create their own well-intentioned but wholly misinformed explanations as to why their loved one is so full of malaise. Choking under the shroud of shame and social stigma, the individual withdraws even further.
What everyone, including sometimes the sufferer, fails to see is that recovery from mental illness, like cancer, Parkinson’s Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, or any other illness, is not an issue of willpower. It will never respond to even a sincere desire to be different or be rid of it. Psychological and emotional disorders, like physical disease, have nothing to do with how badly someone does or does not want to be normal, does or does not want to be a productive member of society. Depression doesn’t lessen through finding laughter in life or even meaning. Suicidal ideation is not alleviated in the long term by finding something to live for. Alcoholism or drug addiction doesn’t simply vaporize from seeing the look in a spouse’s eyes and waking up to the incredible destructive cycle that person’s life has descended into.
It doesn’t matter how much love someone has for their family, how badly they want to be a role model to their children, or how desperately they wish life could be easier and even logical. Suicide is called a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But for the sufferer facing another stint in therapy, another hospitalization, another round of medications, those solutions offered feel more like temporary solutions to a permanent problem. Hope for remission disappears, and the despair becomes suffocating.
Our culture, in an effort to make sense of a mental illness on which love from the family has little to no effect, becomes almost accusatory in nature during attempts to explain these things away. Those affected by the illness look upon mental disease as being almost voluntary, that the mentally ill could at any time summon some change for themselves and quit suffering. Illnesses such as depression or alcoholism are dismissed as being rooted in apathy or selfishness. While the need to search for meaning in tragedy can be understood by nearly anyone, the only result from being on the business end of these mistaken beliefs about mental illness is a feeling of stark alienation, deep affirmation of the patient’s feelings of abnormality.
Eventually someone prominent overdoses or takes their own life, and we’re “shocked” and “blindsided”. If our eyes are open at all, we should be anything but shocked that someone would die from mental illness. Death from this sort of misunderstood disease is unspeakably painful for families and friends, is littered with confusion and devastation. Children and family are warped with grief. Suicide in particular leaves behind an unfathomable mess for anyone remotely involved or affected. But what’s actually shocking is not the death itself, it’s that our culture is so blind and uneducated about mental illness that someone finally taking their own life is a ruthless surprise that no one seems to see coming.
We ultimately cannot rush science or will our way out of the infancy of mental illness treatment without continued research and patience, though we can work to enact a drastic change in public attitude. Someday perhaps we can support and understand the mentally ill patient in the same way we can support and understand the patient with cancer, and find no separation in how these ailments are viewed. Someday the mentally ill will stop being recipients of blame in a society desperately in need of openness about nonphysical illness. Someday, perhaps, we can experience the same outpouring of love and tolerance for the mentally ill individual in life as we do in reaction to their untimely death.
Photo: Luka Terzaroli