What is the common link between Axl Rose, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Michael Phelps and Abraham Lincoln? Well, the answer is mental illness. A few months ago, I never would have guessed. The occurrence of any kind of mental disorder can directly affect 1 in 4 people in their lifetime and the repercussions often do spill over onto families and close friends. The trigger to these diseases can be anything from a death in the family, the use of recreational drugs, genetics, diseases, injuries (such as head trauma) and even the result of traumatic experiences including war or child abuse.
The fact is that mental illness can develop in anyone regardless of the person’s age, social status, skin colour, etc. During the month of October, the CBC published significant material promoting awareness of mental disorders and even more alarmingly, the incredible lack of availability and coverage for treatment relating to these conditions. It can usually take up to two years to actually sit down with a psychiatrist just for a basic evaluation and their waiting lists have their own waiting lists. This is certainly the opposite for those who are diagnosed with cancer, heart disease, stroke, or any other major impairing ailment, who get quasi-immediate high-priority care. Furthermore, there isn’t the same stigma attached to these conditions as with mental disorder.
More recently on the local news, I heard that a woman in Ottawa, a wife and mother of two known to her neighbours as an outgoing and involved member of the community, killed her 6 year-old and 4 year-old while her husband was at work. When the husband came home later that evening, he found the lifeless bodies of his children on the floor and his wife’s light just about ready to extinguish. He called an ambulance but his wife passed away on the way to the hospital. It was a case of mental illness which had gone under the radar not only in the community but even in their family home. It is indeed a tragedy for the whole family and for our failing healthcare system that is letting too many people fall through the cracks.
Now, this is not to send you all out on a witch-hunt to uncover these possible menaces to society. The facts speak for themselves, you need only to listen. You may very well have a friend, relative, co-worker or acquaintance suffering from an acute depression, bi-polar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, you name it. I lived with a person for a long time without knowing this was possible or even knowing what to do as it feels you are constantly walking on eggshells. The reason why I am pointing this out is that, once you may have identified their sense of feeling lost and the existence of an illness, it is easier to become their supporter and advocate.
In the past, we used to say that people were just badly brought up and blamed much of their programming on bad behaviour rather than believe it was a mental disorder. Many general practitioners continue to attach this label rather than referring patients down proper channels to receive the care they require. Many sufferers tend to exhibit unusual patterns we tend to equivocate with irrational, eccentric, disorganized, oblivious, insensitive and self-centered traits. Mental illness is a very selfish disease that makes the sufferer feel like it is himself or herself against the world. They push away everything and everyone until eventually – worst case scenario without proper treatment or support – they begin to trap themselves into a lonely existence experiencing too much stress, leading them to contemplate suicide.
As a parent, spouse or friend, it can be extremely complicated to deal with people who have mental illness. Although our loved one may appear extremely focused at work, creative in their arts and have every under control, they will rarely seek help convincing themselves everything is fine. As an outsider, you notice this person is almost lifeless, sleeping long hours (or not sleeping at all), missing work often, hardly eats, never on time and distracted. You know something is wrong but they will never admit it. If you need help coping with these situations, there are excellent peer support and family education programs offered by NAMI that can assist in finding tools to do just that. Remember what Bob said: “Judge not, before you judge yourself.”