A Taboo Subject That Hurts People
Treating rather than ignoring mental illness
When we opened our apartment front door, she marched right into our kitchen and started looking through our cabinets! That's what the middle-aged nurse from the county health department did when she visited our home. She was looking for partly filled prescription medication bottles that would give evidence that I had been taking my pills. I was considered a public health hazard with the tuberculosis that had set-in to my right lung lobe. I had been diagnosed a few months before when I saw my doctor for a persistent cough. Apparently I was infected a few years before when I was a missionary in Puerto Rico. The disease had lay dormant for a few years, and then flared up.
Everyone told me they hoped I would heal soon. It wasn't just the county health department: my wife and children, my parents, my sisters and brother, my neighbors and friends, and even my former employer. The health department had required that about 30 people from my previous work department to be tested for TB. Some of them let me know that they were not happy about that. It seemed like no one was shy about discussing my disease with me.
The person who wanted a quick recovery the very most was...me! I didn't like the idea of being a public health risk. Further, almost all of my regular daily activities were ordered to cease by my doctor. I couldn't attend college. I couldn't work, I couldn't play basketball or tennis, and I couldn't hike. I had to stay home and rest. Other than feeling tired, there were no other symptoms once the cough went away after I was on the medication for just a few weeks. I had to stay in our small apartment and basically do nothing. It was like being a criminal under house arrest.
After three or four months, the medications did work and I was considered cured. Other than having to explain the small dime-sized scar left in my right lung whenever a chest X-ray was taken, it was like I had never had the dreaded disease.
I explain all of this because when I consider how the subject of mental illnesses is treated by many people, the sentiments and reactions are so different from those of a physical ailment such as TB. Rather than focusing in on the condition and offering help and support for a remedy, mental illness is treated like it's a subject to be ignored. It's a taboo topic and discussion is forbidden. Those plagued by it are viewed as less worthy of love and attention.
This all is such a tragedy.
I believe that mental illnesses should be viewed and treated a lot more like physical ailments. When someone has TB or just the flu, the condition isn't ignored and allowed to fester with neglect. Treatment is actively administered, even if all that is needed is rest and drinking plenty of fluids. Most people don't look down condescendingly at a person who gets TB or the flu. Rather, they offer their sympathy and support.
Why must it be so different with those who suffer from mental illnesses?
Mental illnesses are not rare, unusual things. Studies show that few families in the United States are unaffected by mental illness. Epidemiology experts estimate that one in five suffers from a mental illness, and of those, less than 40% receive stable treatment.
People afflicted with mental illnesses often feel shame so they try to keep their illness a secret. They suffer in silence. Sometimes such an approach is promoted by others.
When I was 18 years old and had a severe bout of depression, a family member told me that I should avoid allowing other family and friends to know of my condition. When visitors came to our home, I was told to leave the living room so the guests would not be suspicious of why I was home from college for a few months. For the same reason, I was told to not attend church.
More recently since I've published a book about my mental health journey (and revealed to the world all my secrets!), I've been taken back by how many individuals have approached me and said something like, "It's nice to have someone else I can talk to about my mental health challenges. Most people don't understand."
I don't know what it will take to change perceptions and openness about mental health issues. But the biggest tragic result of the state we seem to be in is that people who suffer from mental illness do not seek help and treatment. Many stay stuck in the frustrations, pain, hopelessness, and loneliness. These really hurt!
If someone was in pain and limping from breaking a bone in his leg, most people would think it was a tragedy if he did not promptly receive proper medical attention. But this very tragedy happens to millions of those inflicted with mental illnesses.
Good treatments are available. I have experienced the tremendous benefits of psychotherapy and medication for depression and anxiety. These things have been miracles in my life.
Perhaps if each one of us responds favorably and proactively with love and understanding when we learn that a friend or neighbor is suffering from a bout with mental illness, we will help facilitate a change in how mental illness is viewed.
We probably don't want things to come to a point where public health nurses are bursting into homes to ensure that treatments such as antidepressant medication are being properly taken. But we do need more understanding and support of family and friends.