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. ~Glenn Close
Recently, I read an article on Slate by Larry M. Lake called Comfort Food. In the article he spoke of the stark contrasting differences in the treatment his family received when his wife was diagnosed and became ill with breast cancer and when his daughter was diagnosed and became ill with bipolar. When his wife was sick, people rallied and brought homemade dishes, offered rides, showed up at the hospital with ice-cream and so forth until his wife went into remission. When his daughter became ill, there were no homemade meals, no offers of rides or support, they faced the challenges of their daughters illness alone. It was a thought-provoking article in that it helped me to see (what I really already knew), how very different physical and mental illnesses are treated in our society. The question begs to be asked…Why?
Over the years I have known many people who have faced challenges in overcoming mental illnesses, addictions, and or various disorders that are mind centered. I personally have never looked at illnesses of the brain differently than I have any other illness. The brain is an organ, as is the heart, lungs, liver, e.t.c., and at any given time these organs can develop cancer or any other numerous diseases caused by stress, exposure to toxins in our environment, or from a genetic predisposition. All of these organs have the equal ability and potential to heal and once again become healthy from changes in lifestyle, medications, and appropriate treatment. Somehow though, the organ we discriminate against when it becomes ill is the brain. Perhaps because those are the illnesses that frighten us the most and are the most misunderstood.
When people become sick with cancer, there is so much support from within ones family and outside ones family. Recently, a very dear man, my son’s grandfather, was diagnosed with stage five cancer. It was a terrible time for all those who loved him and knew him. During his brief illness people rallied around him much like they did for the wife in the article Comfort Food. There were offers to drive him to and from appointments, people sat with him during Chemo, they visited him in the hospital, organized a schedule for people to bring food, and started a web page to inform others of his progress and to have others leave words of encouragement, love, and support. The support was not just for him either. it extended to those who were caring for him during this very difficult time. They were beautiful gestures during an unthinkable time while a family dealt with an illness and sadly, a passing of someone they loved.
But what about the families of those dealing with someone who is mentally ill? They too are making frequent trips to hospitals, doctors appointments, and specialists. Some families have to travel miles or States away when their children need to be hospitalized, often times leaving one parent at home while the other parent stays in a hotel close to the hospital for days, or even weeks at a time. These families are exhausted, overwhelmed, frightened, and at times isolated from family and friends due to their child’s illness.
How wonderful would it be for these families to have others rally around them and occasionally bring them food because they are too exhausted to cook? How grateful would these families be to have someone come and sit with their child so they could have a night off, or for someone to start a webpage to encourage them and their child with words of support during their difficult journey?
Families caring for a child or another individual with mental illness, are often times dealing with the same stresses as a family who is caring for a child or individual who has a physical illness such as cancer. Including, wondering how long they have with their child. Individuals with a severe mental illness have a shorter lifespan, it is thought to be 13.5 to 32 years shorter. According to Psychiatric Services, more than 90% of suicides are a result of a mental illness and individuals with bipolar disorder have a 10 -20% lifetime risk for suicide. Also, people taking medications for mental illness have a greater risk for heart and liver disease, as well as other complicated physical illnesses that result in negative outcomes.
The stigma of mental illness…. the fear, shame, embarrassment, misunderstanding, ignorance, and at times intolerance, needs to be stripped away once and for all, so that all diseases can be treated in our society as equals. There was a time not so long ago that cancer was a misunderstood disease. According to a Cancer.org website, in the 17 & 18 centuries people believed cancer was contagious. The first cancer hospital in France was forced to move outside the city because people feared the disease would spread throughout the city. Now that people have a better understanding of the terrible disease, our society works tirelessly to bring awareness, support, and funding to the cause and cure of cancer.
When I read articles such as Comfort Food it brings a sense of sadness because I can relate to what the families experiences were. Because I am a parent of a child with a severe mental illness, I have seen first hand how differently illnesses within our own family are treated. And although it warms my heart to see the love and kindness bestowed upon those dealing with a life threatening illness, I believe that the same kindness and support should be shown to the family dealing with a mental illness. Mental illnesses can just as easily be life threatening and happen unexpectedly. It’s a fear and thought that never wanders far from a parents thoughts, wondering when or if they’ll lose their child to suicide or an adverse reaction to medication.
In the end, Comfort Food wasn’t about the food, it was about having the same compassion, showing the same kindness, and offering the same support you would anyone who was dealing with a devastating diagnosis. Whether it’s physical or mental, it shouldn’t make a difference. The effect it has on the family living daily with the disease are the same.
“I alone cannot change the world, but I can cast a stone across the waters to create many ripples.”
― Mother Teresa