Sunday, October 28, 2012

Killing the Stigma of Mental Illness 

In the recent past, I learned of two devastating tragedies. One was the suicide of a beautiful young woman: Ivy League graduate, winner of endless awards, prestigious job, and “everything” going for her. The other was the suicide of a close family member of a good friend. The father of three grown children. Both shattering the lives of endless loved ones, friends and acquaintances.

I did not know either of these people, but their loss profoundly hurt me. It hurt me, because every time I hear of a suicide I am instantly reminded of my two close friends who took their lives. Both of whom I had spoken with or seen in the time immediately preceding. Both where I saw nothing, sensed nothing, picked up on nothing and therefore did nothing.

Following a suicide, everyone is looking for a reason, an excuse. Everyone wants to find something or someone to blame. Because when we have a label, it makes it so much easier to separate it from our lives or our responsibility. My one friend suffered from bipolar disorder. Therefore, it somehow made sense to people. He was sick. He either didn’t take his meds, or he took the wrong meds, or the doctors messed up.

With my other friend, no one saw it coming. Sure, after the fact you could recognize that he looked down and was stressed, overwhelmed, and whatever else could be blamed. But only after the fact.

Today I was reading comments about this young woman’s recent suicide. The one with the “perfect” life. And it was unbelievable. People actually wrote that they were convinced that there was no way she would have taken her life. After all, she had a great job, she was beautiful, she was moving up in the corporate ladder, she came from a loving and stable home, she had so many friends. You name it, she had it going for her. Not only did people not want to believe she killed herself, they refused to believe she did it. But it seems that being perfect isn’t so easy. And certainly, staying perfect is pretty impossible.

Here is the thing: healthy people do not kill themselves. Just like healthy people don’t die of illness. But looking healthy and being healthy are two very different things. And just like we have an annual physical to make sure that nothing dangerous is lurking behind our fit and “healthy” bodies . . . so too, it is about time we did the same for our mental health.

We keep saying that the stigma surrounding mental illness must be broken. But we have a very long way to go. Like it or not, the reality is that the world is not ready to hear if we are suffering from a psychiatric ailment. We are not posting it to our Facebook status, we are not telling our coworkers, and we are often not even letting our close friends and loved ones know.

And as long as it is a secret, it will keep killing.

When we were grieving the loss of one of my friends, trying to understand the incomprehensible was the hardest part. In the end, the conclusion was that this mental illness, though undiagnosed and unknown, was similar to finding out that he had a brain tumor. And I truly feel that this is what he had . . . it just was an emotional mass eating away at his mind, not a physical one. And one day, that tumor took over, left no room for anything else . . . and it killed him.

Jewish law forbids the taking of one’s own life. It is considered a grave sin. And yet, in most cases of suicide, the law assumes a suicide victim to have been severely ill, to the point that he or she cannot be held accountable. The understanding is that if these people were healthy, if they were cognizant of the gravity of what taking their lives would mean, they would never have willingly chosen to carry out the horrific act. In cases of impaired mental health, a suicide victim is exactly that. A victim. A victim of a terrible, horrible, devastating illness that needs to be addressed head-on, without embarrassment or reprisals or stigma.

That is the only way we can kill this killer.

If you don’t think you know anyone suffering from a mental illness, think again. You do. We all do. There are people in our lives who are scared, anxious, depressed, and may even be suicidal. They might talk about it, or be too scared to talk about it. But we need to make sure we are offering support not only when it is needed, but even before it is needed. We need to make sure those we love know we are here, without judgment, and that it is okay to have issues, it is okay to feel overwhelmed. The only thing not okay is when one refuses to do something about it.

I look forward to the day when one can post as a Facebook status, “Feeling really depressed and overwhelmed . . . does anyone know a good psychologist or psychiatrist I could see?” the same way we don’t hesitate to write, “Have a terrible sinus infection. Anyone know a good ENT?”

Mental illness is no one’s fault. It is an illness like cancer, or diabetes, or anything else that we don’t cause and we can’t prevent. But the difference is that we can treat it—yet only if we are able to be open and honest enough to get that diagnosis, and seek the support and help necessary.

It is time we take a stand against mental illness. We can speak about it, educate ourselves and educate others. Please, if you are suffering, reach out. Get help. Make an appointment. If you know someone who is suffering, please let them know you care, offer an ear and hand, and help them get the professional help they need. And if you don’t think this applies to you—trust me, it does.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about my friends. With one, I have his picture from our wedding next to my Shabbat candles. And every week, when I light, I think of his loss, and how his flame that brought so much love and light was unnecessarily and prematurely extinguished.

Breaking the stigma won’t take away mental illness. But it will take away the fear associated with getting help and addressing the issues. Nothing I can do will bring back my friends. But the loss of my friends will ensure that I do everything in my power to never lose someone else I know in this way. Please, help your loved ones and do the same.


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