The Tragedy Of Mental Illness:Removing The Stigma

Artist Karol Bak

This week a lot of people got an up close and personal look at mental illness, as the media covered Kanye and Trump meeting in the Oval Office. SNL also weighed in on last night’s cold open. But here’s the thing, mental illness isn’t funny. Just like heart disease isn’t funny, or cancer isn’t funny. I can’t imagine anyone mocking someone with cancer on a tv sketch. It would be cruel. Watching this has been especially painful for me. Here’s why.

I grew up with a mother with severe mental illness. My mother was diagnosed with Bipolar 1 Disorder when I was 10, but she had been ill long before that. Bipolar 1 disorder is the most extreme version of Bipolar disorder. The person goes from depression, to normal, to hypo manic ( just below manic), to mania, with hallucinations and psychotic breaks. She was put on antipsychotic drugs ( Stellazine) and antidepressants at that time. Even with the medication, she had episodes. It was heartbreaking to see. When I was 10, we were all at the dinner table, when she started to choke. She thought she had swallowed her fork. My three younger brothers started to laugh. They ranged from age 8 to age 4. My father snapped at them that it wasn’t funny. I got up and walked around the table, accounting for every piece of cutlery. When I got to her, I said to her, look, mom. There are six of us. There are six forks. I put her hand on her fork, and said, here’s yours. You didn’t swallow it. She looked up at me, so frightened, and said, do you promise? I said, yes, mom, I promise. She stopped choking.

When my dad took me out of the convent to take care of her after another hospitalization, I was just turning 13. She was bad again. I had to bathe her. She was in the tub, looking up at me, crying, because she thought her bones were going to come out through her skin. I reassured her that they wouldn’t. Again, she said, do you promise? And again, I said, yeah, mom. I promise.

I can’t count the times I had to reassure her. She had no filter, and no, absolutely no boundaries. She was very creative, and could be very funny. Emotionally, she was the equivalent of a five year old. The medications helped, to a point. Remember, that was back in the sixties, before Lithium. Lithium began being prescribed in the seventies. No one talked about mental illness much back then. I never understood that. The brain is an organ, no different from the heart, the lungs, or the liver. What I learned as a kid, is that if your brain gets sick, nobody wants to know you.

The stigma attached to mental illness infuriates me. It stops people who need help from getting the help they need. No one in my family discussed my mother’s mental illness, no matter what she was doing. It didn’t matter how blatant it got, or that she had been diagnosed, and was under a doctors care. Their capacity for denial was incredible. I got a call from one of my brothers once, because she was upset with him that he wouldn’t admit that there was a family of Amish people living in the house, that nobody else could see but her. He asked me to talk to her. I did. Trying to reach someone in psychosis is challenging, to say the least. I became pretty good at it, given that I had had a lot of practice.

I am writing about this, because NOT talking about mental illness is how we ended up with this president. He moves in and out of psychosis. He has frequent breaks with reality. The malignant narcissism, grandiosity, delusions, and rampant paranoia are all indicators of an Axis II Disorder. ( Axis II Disorders are Personality Disorders, which are not biochemical. Axis I Disorders are the biochemical mood disorders, like depression or Bipolar disorder. Most mental health practitioners agree that there is no cure for a Personality Disorder.) Living with someone with mental illness is tragic enough. Having someone with mental illness running the country is horrifying. Watching him ramble, being almost incoherent, is unreal. The country needs an intervention, regarding denial. Mental illness, left untreated, escalates. Over 27,000 mental health professionals have written letters to Congress attempting to bring this to light, to no avail. By refusing to look at it, the entire country is being plunged into the chaos that untreated mental illness creates.

If we, as a country, could find the courage to have a compassionate conversation about mental illness, it could change the lives of millions of people. People are suffering from depression, from PTSD, from Bipolar disorder, schizophrenia. Help is out there. Unless we challenge the stigma attached to mental illness, people won’t ask for help. I’m sorry, but making fun of anyone struggling with mental illness is not acceptable, not on any level. It just drives others further into the shadows. And very often, they die there.

This population will always live in my heart, because I grew up observing the hell of it first hand. It’s what drove me to study Chinese medicine, because I wanted to find a complimentary path to support clients with these issues, in addition to western medicine. ( For anyone interested in reading about approaches through Chinese Medicine, see the book by Dr Leon Hammer MD, Dragon Rises, Red Bird Flies. Dr Hammer is a renowned psychiatrist who switched  to practicing Chinese medicine. )

Denial is dangerous. Look where we are as a nation because of it. It’s never been an option for me. I know what happens because of it. Let’s all work together to help a population that desperately needs us. Together, we can usher in a new day. Mental illness makes a lot of people uncomfortable. I get that. But we need to have the heart to get past that discomfort. Lives depend on it. And to all of those still suffering, know that there are people out there that love you. You are not alone.  Blessings, Rev Judith Star-Medicine