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Mental Illness: Worst Disease in the World? March 14, 2013

Posted by Crazy Mermaid in mental illness.
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As the worst possible disease, mental illness isn’t even on most people’s radar. But consider, for a moment, the facts.

Unlike cancer, mental illness has a lousy public relations campaign. It doesn’t have a public personality attached to it- at least nobody positive. There’s no Lou Gherig or Lance Armstrong or Stephen Hawking to bring a sense of empathy to the masses. Unlike breast cancer, hundreds of millions of dollars aren’t spent on events to publicize mental illness- events like the Susan G. Komen Walk for the Cure – where the color pink has come to symbolize breast cancer in everything from headbands to hand mixers. Unlike Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong cancer campaign, where yellow bracelets signify triumph over cancer, there is no little plastic bracelet color for mental illness awareness. In fact, because of its enormous stigma, you would be hard-pressed to find victims and family members willing to take the spotlight for mental illness.voelker-hospital-bed

Everyone recognizes that the term “cancer” is a blanket term for a multitude of illnesses all sharing the same basic characteristic: improper cell division. Unlike cancer, the general public doesn’t perceive mental illness as a blanket name for illnesses caused by brain chemistry imbalance. Both are breakdowns of normal bodily functions, yet cancer doesn’t have the reputation of being a character flaw or a sign of moral bankruptcy that mental illness does.

Patients with cancer are not embarrassed to tell their friends and family their diagnosis. They aren’t afraid of being thought less of as a person for that diagnosis, that somehow they fell short. But with mental illness, the stigma is so great that the fear of rejection and isolation is a legitimate concern.  You just don’t tell anyone.

Because their loved one’s illness isn’t associated with moral bankruptcy and character flaws, friends and relatives of cancer victims don’t have the same incentives to keep anyone from knowing their loved one has cancer. Protecting themselves from the unspoken charge of moral bankruptcy by association isn’t a top concern of the families of cancer patients, so they get emotional support from those around them.

Other diseases, like cancer or ALS or a stroke, don’t cause its victims to commit heinous crimes.  You don’t see a breast cancer victim as the lead-in story on the nightly news because she murdered a bunch of school children. You don’t hear about a stroke victim trying to assassinate the President. A lung cancer victim doesn’t jump off a bridge to get away from the horrible voices in his head. And yet the connection between these types of actions and mental illness, if the news media even bothers to make one, is voyeuristic rather than sympathetic.

No legitimate insurance company would dare decline to authorize or pay  for mainstream treatment of a cancer victim, but up until a very recent change in the law, insurance companies had little or no such coverage for mainstream treatment of mental illness, reasoning that it wasn’t, after all, a real physical illness. When they do cover it, it’s under a separate policy from “physical” health, called “Behavioral Mental Health”.  We don’t see major insurance companies splitting off cancer from a list of diseases, calling it “Cell Divisional Health”, severely restricting its access, and farming out its administration to an entirely separate company.

When it comes time for hospitalization, there isn’t a question of whether a cancer victim or stroke victim even needs to go to a hospital. If they’re seriously ill, a cancer patient doesn’t have to be at death’s door before he’s admitted to the hospital. But a mentally ill victim has to either be about to hurt or kill himself or others (as determined by a third party) or needs to have tried (and failed) to kill himself before a mental hospital will consider admitting him.

If they’re hemorrhaging, but not near death, a cancer patient isn’t turned away for lack of space. Cancer patients don’t have to wait until there’s room for them at a hospital. Unlike hospital space for the mentally ill, hospital space for cancer victims hasn’t decreased over the past 20 years.

Alzheimer’s patients aren’t routinely discharged from hospitals onto the streets, left to fend for themselves. Cancer patients aren’t routinely discharged before they are stabilized. And yet the mentally ill are routinely discharged out onto the streets before they’re ready all of the time.

The cancer patient doesn’t have to give up his civil rights in order to be treated. He can leave the hospital whenever he wants. But in order for a mentally ill patient to be treated, he has to give up his civil rights. Mental patients are locked in, physically unable to leave the hospital until someone else- the attending psychiatrist- says they can go- however long that takes.

Once in a hospital, a cancer patient has the option to discontinue medication at any time.   Mentally ill patients who have been involuntarily committed, on the other hand, must leave their civil rights at the door when they enter a mental hospital. Whether they want to or not, they are forced to continue medication while they are hospitalized.

Comparing the physical pain of the cancer or the effects of cancer treatment with the effects of mental illness is in some ways like comparing apples to oranges.  Whereas the cancer victim fights for her life, the severely depressed victim fights to die.  Is the physical pain of cancer worse than the emotional pain of continually hearing horrible voices in your head nonstop? Is radiation sickness worse than lithium side effects?  Is prostate cancer preferable to schizophrenia?

I’m not trying in any way to minimize the pain and suffering that these diseases engender. My point is that each of these diseases –all of them- including mental illness-engenders tremendous pain and suffering. None of them- including mental illness- is any less severe than any other.

For too long, mental illness has been a quiet disease. Quietly terrible, but still quiet.  This is a disease- or a family of diseases- on par with cancer and ALS and strokes, and yet there is a huge vacuum out there. Nobody even thinks about mental illness as a true physical disease. It’s not even on the radar. This needs to change. We need to raise people’s consciousness about mental illness, and give it the parity it deserves.  We’ll know we’ve done our job when “mental illness” takes its rightful place on the list of Terrible Diseases in the public consciousness.

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Comments»

1. THE K QUEEN! - September 21, 2013

Wow-another great writing-thank you. I just commented on ketamine, but shall be happy to read other things you have written as well. I have mental illness. I have suffered for years and years before I bravely went to see a psychiatrist and was diagnosed. (age 24-now I’m 37) My family was flabbergasted-what was wrong with me?! Why did I behave this way? Was this an excuse to punish me by using belts/hands/choking or shoes on my body? No one knew. Once I was asked to leave the dorms in college for my behaviour problems-I knew something was wrong. I went home-got abused again-then ran back to the big city I went to for college and was homeless at 19. I was also homeless when I was 32! Now I have appropriate housing and the right meds and have another chance at life. People NEED to take mental illness seriously! It’s devastating affects on the ill person and those surrounding her are astounding! You are so right about the stigma mental illness has. It’s terrible. Things NEED to change. People must be educated!


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