let’s talk about mental illness, really

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

Happy Lou, long after the storm.

On the horn with Madeleine recently, she asked me: “Mom, did you read Nicholas Kristof?” This is a question that she often asks and always makes me happy. That my 20-year-old daughter reads The New York Times and keeps such close tabs on her favorite columnists warms the cockles of my newswoman’s heart, whatever the heck cockles are. (And are they normally that cold?)

Turned out Kristof’s column a couple Sundays back raised an issue that cuts close to home for us. He called on the news media to stop neglecting mental illness — to address it honestly, compassionately and comprehensively, looking at real people who struggle with depression or eating disorders or suicidality or P.T.S.D., rather than weighing in with generalizations after the latest mass shooting. “All across America and the world, families struggle with these issues,” he wrote, “but people are more likely to cry quietly in bed than speak out.”

No one likes to talk about mental illness. The thought alone unsettles, embarrasses, terrifies. After my father attempted suicide with sleeping pills in 1974, he spent nine days in a coma and six months undergoing pure talk therapy at the Institute of Living in Hartford, Conn. — which worked — and I spent those same six months not answering the unspoken questions of everyone at school. One kid who dared mention my daddy’s stay in a psych hospital got promptly shushed by a teacher. And I remember thinking, more or less, “What the fuh?” The message was clear: This type of illness, with this type of hospital stay, is not to be discussed.

Bullshit. We need to talk about it. It hits people.

My father recovered from his depression and went on to live another 18 years — no psych meds, no recurrence, though the coma probably hastened his dementia. My sister and husband weren’t as lucky. I’ve now written about all three of them (two in my last memoir, one in my next one), so I’ve obviously overcome any lingering reluctance to discuss suicide in a public forum.

It’s all out there; I’m all in. I don’t have much choice in the matter. Because, face it, if I decided I couldn’t talk about the people in my life who’ve been affected by mental illness, I WOULD HAVE VERY FEW THINGS TO TALK ABOUT.

As a people, 21st-century Americans are open to discussing so many things: our sex lives, our hoarding, our fights against life-threatening ailments. But when we try to discuss this brand of fight and this brand of ailment, our jaws lock. We can’t go there — not because it’s all too alien. Because it’s all too familiar. Because too many of us have cried quietly in bed ourselves, or have heard a loved one’s weeping.

There’s no cause for shame in mental illness, no cause to feel isolated. We only think we’re alone because we’re so tight-lipped, so scared. Every time I’ve lost a beloved someone to suicide, people have emerged from the shadows to confess that they had, too.

How can we combat this scourge if we don’t face the darkness squarely? How better to nurture and bulwark our own peace of mind than to name the insanity, call it out, give it form, understand it, find its weakness, see its depths? How better to stay sane and alive ourselves — which are, in the end, one and the same thing?

So let’s talk about it. Really. And let’s start now.

19 thoughts on “let’s talk about mental illness, really

  1. I couldn’t agree more, Amy. Mental illness is the silent epidemic that is anything BUT silent for those who endure/fight it and as you experienced, live with those who struggle with it.

  2. Many thanks for this post and talking about this illness. People with mental illness are rarely asked, “How’s your recovery going?” as their peers with cancer are asked, and family members are rarely offered casseroles, rides or babysitting as their cancer peers are. It doubles the suffering and reinforces the shame.

  3. Yes, and yes.

    This past fall when we, friends and family, were raising money for suicide prevention walks, I ran into a former teacher of my son’s (who died of suicide 5 years ago) who said that our request for a contribution from his school had “fallen through the cracks,” and reiterated several times how important is it to discuss “this issue” with the kids. She couldn’t even bring herself to say the word “suicide.” Like most people who do this work, I have had school officials wriggle in discomfort and tell me that it would be unproductive to do prevention education with their students. The public discussion of mental health issues has a very long way to go.

    • Those of us who have “lived” through the loss of a loved one by mental illness must find the courage to love enough to speak truth always, to all who will listen. Discomfort can be overcome by gentle strength and peaceful approaches. I have lived it for 5 years now…Love always wins.

  4. When I mention something about my daughter’s activities or accomplishments, people who are aware that her death was by suicide tend to become uncomfortable. Is the very existence of people who have made this choice supposed to be purged?

    • I know. I think the best way to address this is to just keep talking in a natural way. I tell lots of stories about my sister and husband; they were enormous gifts in my life, and they remain so. The fact that they killed themselves doesn’t negate that.

  5. Thank you, Amy. The good news is that, outside of the stupid and damaging stereotypes that come out legislatures and some news sources in moments of crisis, more people are talking openly and thoughtfully about mental illness, and the increase openness has lead to somewhat greater acceptance, knowledge, and support — but not nearly as much as we need. One of the problems is that the term is often a misnomer. In most cases, it would be better to call a “mental illness” an emotional crisis or an emotional or brain difference. I know this might sound euphemistic, but the focus on “illness” has led to a focus on a medical approach to what is too often generalized as a permanent problem that must be cured. In many cases the the difference simply needs to understood with balance of accommodation and acceptance (as there are almost always strengths along with the weaknesses), and sometimes a crisis will pass with changes in nature and nurture. I believe the best “cures” are long term healthy doses of love, connections, empathy, and human and therapeutic interactions instead of hospitalization and medication. In fact, more and more evidence suggests that the best mental hospitals don’t look or feel like hospitals at all. I speak from the perspective of a parent whose world has been rocked by a mental crisis and also as a professional who has been working for years with “troubled teens” who are frequently over diagnosed and over medicated. Emergencies require dramatic interventions, but the diagnoses too often lead unfortunate long term treatments. Too often the psychiatric/psychological complex loses sight of the humanity of the patient. This loss of empathy can lead us to see someone who is simply different or in crisis as the other when they are, in fact, us. The reality is that we are all head cases (and that shit happens to us!), it simply a matter of degrees. The challenges are real and those who are in crisis need support, but their humanity, strengths, and potential are almost always there, and they need us to believe this.

    • Randy, I agree completely: the urge to medicalize what is, essentially, an outgrowth of being conscious, feeling and broken (who isn’t?) distances ourselves from it and suggests that those afflicted can’t recover without DSM-stamped diagnoses and pharmaceutical cocktails. It also suggests an “other-ness” (i.e., something that happens to other people, not us) that’s both damaging and false. And you’re absolutely right: Everyone IS a head case; it really is just a matter of degrees. Which, for the record, just might be my favorite Randy quote of all time!

  6. While I agree with your post and look forward to your book, I’m a little skeptical when people demand that we talk about difficult topics such as mental health, addiction, social issues, race, crime. Honest discussion is difficult because offense is easily taken and the culture war politics can get nasty.

  7. Agree, amen, and yes. I was raised (sorta, depending on your definition) by a mother who made two (that I know of) suicide attempts, one of which was significant enough to land her in an ICU and then psych ward.

    I’ve been ramping up to writing more publicly about this because it has helped shape my (weird?) attitudes about this stuff, including the outrageous proposition that in some instances suicide represents a courageous act. During private conversations, I’ve found others (including mental health professionals) who understand and agree with this perspective. Until now, I’ve held off writing about this for obvious (?) reasons.

  8. Amy, I love you. I liked the girl I knew, I enjoyed reading the woman I found again on FB and now..I just want you to know that I think you are amazing, simply because you don’t think you are amazing. It’s all your life, it’s simply what comes up this day or that, and you get through it, and you move forward and you keep hoping. You are spectacular. And really there are so many people out there doing quiet, spectacular things every day, just like this, and we don’t recognize that very well. You are bedrock, and that’s hard.

    It’s hard to be that for yourself. It’s hard to be that for others. It never stops being hard, but it’s just what the day calls for, and so it gets done, and it’s nothing remarkable, really – just another day where the sun came up and moved through the sky and then set , all while you did stuff that you’ll do again the next day, because someone has to. Thank God for these people in the world.

    I have some experience with this. I know what it’s like, sort of. Nobody died. Yet, anyway, and hopefully never. Well, not never, but you know what I mean. I can connect with at least a corner of what you’ve faced and you just impress the fuck out of me, that’s all.

    If you ever DO get all the shit figured out, I’m going to be right here, reading every word.

    • Oh, Jo, thank you. I don’t know how amazing I am; I’m just muddling along. That’s all of us, right? But I thank you for reading my blog with such a big heart. And rest assured, I will NEVER have all my shit figured out!

  9. This very story is what I read in yesterday’s (February 2, 2014) TIMES UNION. Do you sample them first here on your blog? Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it because there were threads of similarity in thinking about mental illness that we seem to share. A non-immediate family member’s brother took his life with a gun after returning from military service just after those Desert Storm days many years ago. Splitting headaches and fire-flaming pain smoldered just under his skin that greeted him daily upon waking (later we learned of agent orange). He was told back then it was “in his head”. I believed his physical injuries, although unseen, contributed to his “crisis” that lead to his final solution. But to this day, his own sister, cannot and will not discuss it and gets angry when I even hint that he must have had a sense of courage to have made that difficult, but final decision. Like mentioned above, there are some of the survivor family members and friends that cannot or will not bear to discuss or even “deal” with how the “shit” of others impact their own lives. I think it’s their own way of coping. I, like you perhaps, feel that by opening the discussion to all mental illness, then and only then can healing on many levels occur. One of my brothers struggled with alcoholism and finally succumbed at age 57 to heart troubles related to his addictions. My mother cannot discuss it at all, four years later. Thank you for letting people in, by sharing so much of yourself and your humanity. I appreciate it and find it refreshing in a world where potential candidates for the presidency can bare-face lie to us, and all we do is turn the click off/ turn the page instead of head for the streets in protest.

    • Thank you, Rose. When people feel they’re safe to discuss these things without fear of judgment, they’ll start discussing them, I think.

      And yes, the Times Union pulls my twice-monthly Sunday columns from this blog. So some of what I write here (not all of it) will land in print.

  10. It was great to see Kristof’s column and even greater to see yours on mental illness. I’ve worked in community mental health for many years and I know how difficult it can be for people and how terrible our system of care is. I agree with you that just talking abut this, as painful as it must be, is something that needs to happen. Thank you for you courage.

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