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‘Mental Illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.’ Bill Clinton
In my blog ‘Personal Responsibility,’ I shared the story of my father who developed mental illness at the age of 18. He was diagnosed with Paranoid Schizophrenia, a severe mental condition that plays havoc with a person’s mind. While writing that blog it made me think about society’s attitude to people with mental illness which is a bit like an ostrich with it’s head in the sand.
My Dad captured the story, in his autobiography, ‘Touched by Madness’ . The book tells the story of his slow mental decline into a state of insanity and delusion. After a lengthy stay at a mental institution, and with the help of medication and therapy, he stabilised and made the long journey from darkness into light.
Dad developed a great deal of insight into his condition over the years, not always an outcome for schizophrenics. He accepted it for what it was, something he had no control over. After his regular monthly injection of a drug called Modicate, he would say quite blithely,
‘Well, I’m sane for another month!’
He had a wonderful dark, albeit corny sense of humour, which runs in the family, a quality sorely needed to get through something like we did.
I have received many comments and questions from people who have either experienced mental illness themselves or with someone close to them. It does raise the question of whether society’s attitude to mental illness is what it should be and if not, how can we improve it?
That is the important question isn’t it.
The first thing that is needed is a change of attitude towards mental illness. If the shame and the stigma were removed, it would allow those suffering from it to seek the help they need without fear of ostracism, ridicule and abuse. A change of attitude is not easy though as I’m sure you will have noticed with any attempt at an attitude change. I confess to struggling early on with acceptance of my father’s condition and later on with my brother who experienced a similar mental affliction. As a society we need to be fearless about confronting our prejudices.
I’m not sure if it is my imagination or not, but there seems to be an ever increasing number of unstable, confused people going on rampages played out in dramatic footage on TV. This might be a perception that is not borne out by fact but it seems that way. I don’t know about you but after watching yet another mass killing, I often ask myself, ‘what on earth is going on here?’, ‘how come no one realised there was something wrong with this person?’
Mental illness is very common in society and many people you speak to know of someone who is struggling with a mental health issue. After yet another mass killing in America, I watched a television interview with the father of the perpetrator. Although he knew his son was very disturbed, he never believed he would do what he did.
Thinking about the interview with the father it was clear that there were many instances where the level of disturbance of his son was very obvious. Much like him, it is as if our minds struggle to accept that anyone can perpetuate crimes like this least of all someone we care about deeply. After the fact, when friends and family are interviewed they often say that they thought there was something seriously wrong with the person but they didn’t know what to do.
Many families do try and help their loved ones but are confronted with a system that perhaps doesn’t support the person as much as it should or the system doesn’t have the resources to deal with the overwhelming number of cases that present themselves every day. It is a multi-faceted problem requiring a commitment to a better mental health approach that recognises and responds to warning signs earlier.
In my father’s case, when he was spiralling out of control, he knew something was drastically wrong. He went to three doctors to ask for help but none of them did anything to help him. He then went to the police to ask them to lock him up as he thought he might harm someone close to him and they let him walk out. Nobody checked him out properly and surely if someone is saying they are going to harm someone, it needs to be taken very seriously!
As a society, mental illness is still somewhat of a taboo subject we are not comfortable talking about. We can talk easily about Asthma, Diabetes, Cancer and other physical conditions without any sense of shame or discomfort. This is not the case with mental illness. The subject suffers from a lack of light and fresh air. Like anything that is kept in the dark it withers and dies while we wring our hands together and say…how did this happen? There has been a long history of very poor treatment of the mentally ill and I suspect that to a certain extent, it still continues now in some places.
As far as their treatment of mental illness is concerned, certain cultures are better at accepting it for what it is while others are still languishing in the dark ages of superstition and religious mumbo jumbo. These unhelpful attitudes make it even more difficult for people to ask for help due to the level of shame they feel for struggling with something they have no control over but for which they are made to feel defective and broken.
I believe it’s a measure of the level of civilised advancement of a society how well they take care of those who are more vulnerable, for example, their mentally ill, the elderly and their animals.
For many of us, we hope if we ignore mental illness, it will go away – the classic ostrich with its head in the sand trick. If we can somehow not touch it, perhaps it will sidestep us. Mental illness is not going to go away though and if the statistics are correct; it is increasing across all levels and strata of society.
It’s time we shone a bright light on it and show how a civilised society treats those who cannot help themselves.
This quote from Glenn Close sums it up poignantly:
‘The mentally ill frighten and embarrass us. And so we marginalize the people who most need our acceptance. What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.’ (Mental illness: The stigma of silence)
Take care and be kind to each other