This year (2013), October 10 is World Mental Health Day. I’d be remiss not to mention this considering that I write about mental health all of the time. Actually, I find that I write about mental illness more often than “health.” Like most things in life, we tend to take notice of things that go wrong because, really, most other things go right. It’s just that we take these things for granted.
Think about it. The very fact that you’re breathing is “right.” If you’re reading this post that means you can see. That’s pretty cool. Even if you’re going through a crisis, you do have many other things that go smoothly, even if they seem “behind the scenes.” The reason humans tend to focus on the negative so much is because it is out of the ordinary.
That being said, mental illness is unfortunately more ordinary than most people think. According to the National Alliance of Mental Health (NAMI), one in four American adults (61.5 million people) and about 20% of adolescents age 13 – 18 experience some kind of mental illness in any given year. These people are just like you and me – they may even be you and me.
Even though education about mental illness has increased over the last decade or so, there’s still a huge stigma associated with it. It breaks my heart to hear about someone who could have been helped if they had just reached out for it, but instead ended up in a tragic situation.
Why does this still happen? I wish there was a simple answer, but in many instances, the person is either not aware he/she is ill, is not aware of local and national resources or is too afraid to be labeled “crazy” if he/she seeks out help. Sometimes, as in the case of Andrea Yates, many entities fail.
After the birth of her first child, Noah, in February of 1994, the Yates were advised not to have any more children because Andrea developed Postpartum Psychosis. Due to their religious beliefs and family influences, they continued on to have four more: John (December, 1995), Paul (September, 1997), Luke (February, 1999) and Mary (November, 2000). Andrea had trouble after each birth, but never stopped being open to, “having as many children as God wanted.”
After Mary’s birth in 2000, Andrea’s psychosis went into overdrive and once again, the Yates sought help for her. She was hospitalized, placed on anti-psychotic medication, and eventually sent home. One problem that psychosis presents to the mental health practitioner is that a diagnosis relies heavily on self-report from the patient. In 2001, Andrea reported to her psychiatrist that she was no longer having delusions or hallucinations, and she stopped taking her medication. You probably know the rest, but if you’re interested in learning about Andrea’s specific delusions that prompted her tragic actions, visit Wikipedia’s page.
So, who’s to blame? We can point fingers at multiple system failures:
- Andrea herself, who could have stopped having children, been more honest about her experiences or could have taken her medications as prescribed;
- Rusty, Andrea’s husband, for insisting that they follow “God’s plan,” for not carefully monitoring his wife’s medication regimen and leaving her alone with the kids for even 5 minutes;
- Their religion, which encouraged couples to have as many children as they could naturally;
- The mental health professionals for not insisting that she stay on her medication, no matter how much better she was feeling;
- Her family, for not seeing how ill she really was and believing that she could never hurt anyone except herself (she had tried to commit suicide multiple times);
- Her parents for passing on the genes that biologically allow for the expression of symptoms;
- American society, for making mental illness so stigmatizing that she was extremely embarrassed to have to see a professional at all; or
- Everyone who came in contact with this woman and either missed or dismissed the odd behavior she was exhibiting
As you can see from this one case, “the system” failed on multiple levels. Unfortunately, the loss of innocent lives are not the only fatalities caused in some part by mental illness. NAMI estimates 30,000 Americans commit suicide each year, with about 90% struggling with mental illness.
What can we do? Each person that reads this needs to pass it on to others so that they can educate themselves about what mental illnesses are, how to look for signs of symptoms in others and themselves and find local and national resources that can provide help. With each person that is educated and prepared, another piece of the stigma falls away. It is my personal hope that mental illness will be almost completely de-stigmatized in my lifetime, but that is up to you.