?

Log in

No account? Create an account
 
 
12 August 2014 @ 11:23 pm
We're talking about mental illness all wrong  
This post discusses mental illness and the death of Robin Williams.

Like many people, I've spent the last 12 and a bit hours feeling a loss. Brilliantly talented people are rare, and their work lifts us as a culture. Sometimes it lifts us as human beings. Sometimes, as with all the laughter Robin Williams provoked, it just lifts our days.

So when the news of his death came across this morning, we stopped getting ready for work here and felt what we would both now miss, and then felt even sadder as we remembered his children and his wife.

And then the newsreader said 'It's believed Williams committed suicide. He had struggled with depression and alcoholism.'

And he didn't have a voice of judgement, and he sounded sad, too, and he was about a million times better than those dickheads over at Fox News, but at the same time, I thought, 'But that's not how you would have said it if he had cancer.'

Because the thing I've realised is that we have a different public language for mental illness and for 'real illness'.

In the main evening news, the presenter had different language. She said, 'Robin Williams has passed away after a long battle with depression.' And I thought, yes, that's it, because mental illness is like cancer.

It's exactly like it. Some cancers and some mental illnesses are discrete – they take up a certain space, are treated and then are gone. They are something you had, but that are now over and done with. After them, you treat yourself a little more kindly: eat more organic food, go for a run or a walk every day, work a little less, live a little more.

Others are ones people live with. You need treatment, and you need to keep watch, to make sure it's behaving, that it's keeping to the limits you can live with and letting you lead your life around it. You still have so much life around it, you just need to be vigilant, and to jump on top of things quickly if it ever looks as though it might be getting the upper hand. You can live a life like that, you can live a great and long life like that.

Then there are the ones that go to war with you. The treatment will be liike a battle, but you can face it down, you can win. And maybe you do win. Or maybe you win once, twice, a dozen times, but lose in the end, because it came back stronger, or because you were worn out. But you fight for as long as you need to, because that's what we do, and if you run out of strength before you run out of disease, the people who loved you will understand.

And then there are the diseases that devastate, that destroy swiftly and wholly and leave you astonished as to how your body could have turned on you like this and that leave your friends and family floundering, lost, because you were just here, and now you're gone.

And when any of these ARE cancer, we have this whole public language that we trot out. He fought bravely. She struggled for many years. He succumbed at last. She was suddenly struck down.

But when it's mental illness of any sort, he is said to have taken his own life. Police on the scene say there were no suspicious circumstances to her death. He committed suicide. She was found alone with empty pill bottles, viewers who are distressed by this information should call …

As a professional journalist, you receive training. For a long time they told us, 'Never say suicide. It encourages others to copycat.' But at the same time, we were told, 'And when a famous person has or dies from cancer, the one good thing is that you can encourage a massive spike in screening and treatment by providing health information with the story.' In a moment of deep common sense, a few years back some of the major mental health groups went out and spread the message – 'We have screening, too!  We have symptoms people should look out for, we have helplines they can call, we have systems that can save.'

And those messages do save: we know for a fact that people call the helplines listed at the end of news stories, and they get help, and many nip their illness early, before it can grow strong.

But I am left wondering: why do we have the different languages? Why do we have one way of talking about all the things that go wrong with the body outside the brain, and another for most of the things that happen inside it?

I had a friend who thought she was going mad. She found out she had a brain tumour. She was relieved. What kind of world is this that brain cancer was preferable? It's a question she asked later, cognizant of the fact that her diagnosis had come with words like 'operable', 'curable' and 'early', but in honesty, she said that she understood cancer, she knew what the support networks were, she knew her friends would stand by her with cancer.

I think we need to start thinking of mental illness as just illness. It's like cancer, it's like heart disease, it's like the flu. It's like so many other things that we are less scared of, and that make us less frightening to other people. I think we need to do this so that we remember that it IS an illness, and that people suffering from whatever form of it need funded and accessible help, and ongoing care, and support, and that if they die of it, they die of the disease – not by choice, or despair, or 'cowardice' (you're so predictably awful, Fox News), but simply because they were sick.

Because if we remember that it is illness, people are faster to seek help. And doctors are more straightforward in what they look for and what they can offer as treatment. And all of the employment entitlements that come with being sick will be there, and there will be less fear.

And there will be less to be frightened of.
 
 
 
Nennenenne on August 12th, 2014 01:43 pm (UTC)
Difficult topic. Really, really difficult. I grew up with a mother who had severe mental problems, depression, narcissism, and disinhibition and meanness found in the classical psycopath. It started off as post-partum depression when I was seven and she became gradually worse from my mid-teens. Intellectually I know that she was ill, that she couldn't help it, but that doesn't really help much. Her illness lead to mental abuse, especially of me, but also my brothers.

Luckily for our family she died of cancer almost ten years ago. Dying early is the only really decent thing she did in her life. I'm sure children who grow up with parents who have cancer also carry their share of emotional scars, but I would choose cancer over severe mental illness any day. My children would be better off with a dead mother than a mother like mine.

Mental illness is not just illnes for me.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on August 12th, 2014 01:56 pm (UTC)
It is hard. Do you think that some of the worst fallout could be because these are often illnesses we don't recognise and don't treat? I confess, I just don't know what to do about psychopathy – the rational response is to say 'Look, you can be a merchant banker, where your skills will serve you well, but no getting married or having kids, because you'll just fuck up lives.' Alas, that's unethical.

But I am heartened by a scientist I saw interviewed. As part of a study, he had his brain scanned. It came out showing signs of classic psychopathy. He was startled, but as he talked to his family and examined his life, the pieces fell into place for him. The diagnosis changed him, made him aware of his actions, made him work at things. It made him a better person, a better father, a better husband.

My hope is that by turning to a more straightforward disease model (including a 'that's just the common cold' level, because a lot of mental illness isn't grim), people would be more likely to seek diagnosis, to get treatment, to work for wellness.

But that doesn't stop me from wanting to slap your mother.
ecosopherecosopher on August 12th, 2014 01:59 pm (UTC)
I'm so sorry to hear about your childhood and how it was affected by your mother's mental illness. Yes, intellectually, we can recognise that it's the illness that does the damage, but it doesn't completely stop the barbs from stinging.
la_marianela_mariane on August 12th, 2014 02:07 pm (UTC)
That's really hard. I think mental illness (like many other things) has degrees. Some are relatively minors (which doesn't mean they don't need medical attention) and some are major. I know that, where I live, when someone is a danger to others, they are hospitalized without their say so. But it comes with its own problems. Still, I hope protecting others from mental patients is a priority among mental health specialists.

Also, the label "mental illness" is really vague. Depression is different from alcoholism, and from schizophrenia,... I know that when I had a depressive episode, I became withdrawn, apathetic and uncommunicative, but I was not dangerous to anyone. I don't know how I would react if it turned out depression made me aggressive, as it happens to some people.