I remember a time when nobody talked about mental illness or even mental health. I recall the nation’s shocking reaction when a news story revealed that Thomas Eagleton, a candidate for Vice President of the United States, had once undergone electro shock therapy for depression. He only lasted eight days as the running mate with George McGovern. That was in 1972, at the very beginning of my mother’s long journey with bipolar disorder. At the time I chose to be mostly silent about her illness lest she be typecast as “crazy” rather that someone with a legitimate and treatable condition.
Almost fifty years later we are only slightly better at talking freely and compassionately about mental illness, even as we have begun to understand that it is far more common than we once believed. Few individuals have never been touched by the often frightening and debilitating specter of a loved one with anxiety, depression or other psychological disorder. Nonetheless it continues to remain an illness only spoken about in whispers. Thus it was stunning to me to hear that Senator John Fetterman had announced that he was undergoing treatment for depression. His honesty and courage filled me with hope that one day such a revelation will be no more shocking than hearing that he had cancer and would be undergoing chemotherapy. Even better was the low key and mostly understanding reaction of the public.
Let’s face it. We all have moments when we endure a deep funk or feel so munch anxiety that our hearts are racing. Life can pound us to the point of knowing that we have to step back a bit or we will surely crack open. Each of us deals with such times in various ways, but for some the cycle won’t stop ratcheting up. Something goes very wrong until something breaks inside the mind. Just as with a heart attack, we can’t heal the level of hurt on our own. Mental illness is just that, a natural phenomenon that happens to almost all people in varying levels of seriousness mostly through no fault of their own.
I’ve had a rough time for the past year. One of my favorite aunts died. Boom! My mother-in-law died. Boom! My father-n-law came to live in my home, upending all of my routines and plans. Boom! One of my dearest friends died. Boom! My cousin was diagnosed with dementia and died so quickly that I never had time to adjust. Boom! A close family member is struggling with a difficult situation. Boom! The world is on fire with natural disasters, wars, famine, sickness, and a seeming inability to work together. Boom! I have been feeling as though I am under attack. I wonder what horrible thing will happen next. The tragedies come in such rapid succession that I am on high alert. Boom!
These days I find just waiting for the next horrible thing to happen. I sleep restlessly if at all. I feel the weight of the world on my chest. Still I do not break, but I am so familiar with what happens to someone who falls apart under the weight of constant stress. I have seen it in my mother’s darting eyes that lost all sense of perspective when her coping skills vanished under the assault for her disorder. I walked with her through the terrors of her thoughts and the nights when there was not even a minute of sleep. I know how painful and exhausting it is for those whose minds are afflicted. I realize that the severeness of their illness has little or nothing to do with how strong they are.
I can give myself a mental health day in bed pampering myself and recover enough to feel confident in returning to the battlefield of life. I know when I am about to hit a wall and smash into a million pieces and I am do what I have to do to become whole and hardy again. Someone with a severe illness may try, but somehow fail to get well with a bandaid here and there. It takes help which all too often is nowhere to be found.
We rally around someone who is undergoing heart surgery or who is struck with a chronic disease of the body. We accommodate them and listen to them as they describe their situations. Somehow mental illness continues to be something that is hidden, frightening. We don’t want to be around someone who is crying or manic. We are uncomfortable with such souls even when they are in a cycle of doing well. We may even deem them to be lost causes, so broken that we can never rely on them to be responsible.
My mother was blessed. She worked with people who understood that she would sometimes be too sick to do her job. They kept it for her until she was well again. Her family looked beyond her moments of insanity and saw her for the incredibly talented, brilliant and strong person that she was. Her doctors patiently adjusted their treatments for her as her symptoms changed. Her employer provided her with free medical insurance that paid for the services that she needed. Her neighbors watched over her looking for signs that she was in distress and then joining in the process of helping her to get well again.
Mental illnesses can and should be as much a part of our medical routines as any other disease or condition that attacks our bodies. As a society we should be as supportive of someone with depression as we might be with an individual with a broken bone. The symptoms of mental illnesses may frighten us, but they should not cause us to shun people like lepers were once driven from society. John Letterman has an illness called depression. It is chronic and he is taking care of it. We should all be applauding him and hope that he will soon be better so that he can go back to work. I am praying that his example will bring change to how we think about diseases of the mind. Surely it is long past time for having discussions of mental illness out in the open and being as generous in funding for research and treatment as we are with cancer.
We all have forms of mental illness to a lesser or greater extent. It is more common that we want to admit. If we are willing to be open and honest about it we may finally be on our way to finding cures for the most frightening of illnesses. Boom!