If I had a dime for every time I heard a newscaster talk about mass shootings and mental illness, especially in news-in-review roundups, I would be rich. Enough already. Only 4% of those with mental illness become violent, which is the same rate[namimc.org] as those who are mentally sound. The bigger problem with mental illness is that we treat those who are sick as if they are outcasts and potential mass killers, which only makes the problem worse.
What if, as a society, we treated mental illness like we treat cancer? In our culture we flood the lives of cancer patients, survivors and families with help, money, races, ribbons and fundraisers. After a young adult in my circle took her own life, I had a brief, guilty thought, “I wonder if a casserole could have helped her?” It had helped me during my cancer. Why should mental illness be any different?
You can often find people doing nice and helpful things for others in faith communities and affinity groups. For instance, the Susan G. Komen website https://ww5.komen.org [ww5.komen.org] is filled with practical interventions for cancer patients and survivors just like the Red Cross provides comprehensive relief after natural disasters. In the same way, many faith-communities have organized themselves to help people both inside and outside their walls when they fall on hard times. But with mental illness there is such a stigma [ncbi.nlm.nih.gov] that we often avoid or shun the mentally ill. Might we be missing our opportunity to care for those affected by it? And there is no shortage of those who need care.
The National Alliance of the Mentally Ill reports [nami.org] that “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year. Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
So, this is why I wondered if a casserole would have helped the young woman who took her life better manage her illness and not solve her problems by killing herself? Could a community wide effort to “One-another, One another” prevent suicide?
Perhaps if we can re-classify “mental illness” as “brain illness” and begin to accept that patients with these diseases and disorders are just as sick as someone with cancer, we might start calling mental health patients “heroes” too. In fact, more so than cancer patients. You see, they have had to fight their illness alone, in hiding, often filled with shame, typically undiagnosed (or misdiagnosed), rejected by their families and with scarce resources. No wonder so many of them die, and now, so many of them are taking others with them.
What would it be like to bring meals to the homes of those struggling with mental illness? Write encouraging cards and letters? Visit them when they’re up for it? Drive them to their appointments? Help pay their bills? Visit when they are hospitalized? I can only imagine.
The one thing as a therapist all of my patients tell me is how healing it is to have someone acknowledge their pain and seek to understand it and help them through it. Fraught with shame [psychcentral.com] (often for years) they have suffered in silence and driven their illness deep underground, trying to hold its stigmatizing presence at bay, because if they let it out, they know what will happen. The precious connection of family and friends that they so need to survive, may leave them. Have you ever been abandoned? Few of us have, but for the mentally ill, it is just one more loss all too common in the lineup of losses they have endured.
To prevent more loss and abandonment, most of my patients will hide their struggles, hold back their experiences or push down their symptoms. Unfortunately, just like when you hold a beach ball underwater, eventually it’s going to pop up.
As it turns out, validation is a key concept [
If a casserole can stop the public health crisis of suicide [psychologytoday.com], then line up a hot dish of tater tots, green beans with mushroom soup and let’s have dinner.
Cindy Finch, LCSW