Monday, October 6, 2008

With friends like this...

Much remains to be done for mental health -- and you're in the perfect position to screw it up.

Hurrah, it's Mental Illness Awareness Week and amidst a few glimmers of hope (like the US decision to require parity between mental and other type health care) the huge job of helping people with faulty ideation, anger issues, profound lack of impulse control and a profoundly crippled ability to exhibit compassion remains largely untouched.

Pardon? Oh sorry, I should have been more precise. I'm talking about so-called ordinary people, not the officially "mentally ill."

At least half the affliction of those who suffer from mental illness comes from the ignorance and spite and misplaced helpfulness of the muggles of the psych world.

Assuming you would like to do better, how can you tell if you're one of the not-yet-treated majority of psych muggles? Here's a checklist.


1. Do you deny the condition? You can be situational and deny your friend has X problem, or you can try pre-emptive denial and loudly proclaim that one or all psychiatric conditions were just made up by the drug companies.

2. Do you deny the diagnosis? Only crazy people have mental illness, and since you and your friend are quietly drinking coffee and no-one is frothing on the floor or dueling invisible aliens, your friend is just mistaken (probably led astray by his money-grubbing psychologist or some goofy article in Oprah Magazine).

3. Do you offer unhelpful advice, by telling your friend to do things which, in fact, are prevented by the condition itself? Do you tell your depressed friend to cheer up, or your bipolar friend to just relax? Do you irritably tell your ADHD friend to just pay attention? Or (for bonus points) do you tell him, whatever the problem is, to "just suck it up"?

4. When your afflicted friend doesn't take your advice, do you write him off because "obviously he doesn't care, or else he would try harder."

5. Your friend, despite your help, has gotten a diagnosis and is being treated. Do you (finally!) research his condition, his treatment and medications and urge him to abandon them and do something else (like join a better church, eat lots of vitamins or follow your advice?).

6. Do you fire, or fail to hire your friend because "well, you never know"? Ditto for having him over for coffee, going camping, part of the bowling team, or taking your family to his place for a BBQ. Tell yourself he needs some time to recover and you don't want to upset him.

7. Do you blame your friend (at this point probably not a friend anymore) for doing things, large or small, that "only a crazy person would do"? Whether it's a bedroom with a pyramid of 37,128 cleaned and stacked Heinz baked bean tins, or singing "Jerusalem" off key all night long, or self-medicating with cannabis, all these things are symptoms -- but do you define them as crimes?

8. Do you believe your friend (who deliberately didn't take your wonderful advice) ought to be in prison for his willful collection of 37,128 bean cans, plus all that singing? ("bring me my bow of burning gold" is definitely suspicious.)

9. Do you gripe about all the crime around these days, and all the crowding in prisons, without noting that your friend is now one of the one in ten prisoners suffering mental illness (2007 figures)?

10. And finally, do you really truly believe that of the several hundred people you know, you can be sure you know which ones have never struggled with mental illness?
Of every 100 people, 20 have come through such a struggle or will do so sometime in their lives. Look at the five people at your dinner table and ask, of these people I love, is there one here who needs my help? Would they tell me, if they did?

How can I start now, to be ready to help when I am needed?


Rock said...

This really hit home for me, as I suffer from depression. I've had faculty members in my department (I'm a grad student at Yale) react with open hostility. I have been called petulant, childish and bored (because uncontrollable crying is fun!). Ever since he found out about my depression (and gossiped about it with other faculty members), my main advisor-type guy has been trying to push me out of the program. He has stated openly that he wants me gone and takes every opportunity he can to tell me that I am a waste of time. And yes, I have complained, but nothing has been done. It sucks.

The dunderheaded comments from well-meaning people can be frustrating. Yes, I have tried thinking about happy things. Yes, I get exercise when I can pull myself off the floor. Yes I do go out in the sun, blah blah blah. I'm depressed, not stupid.

Noni Mausa said...

Hi Rock,

It really sucks canal water, doesn't it?

I hope you've got some kind of support there, Grad school is no stroll in the park. You're welcome to drop me a line off-list, I have a resource or two I can recommend if you're interested.