The tragedy of mental illness

The issue of caring for those with mental illness is once again in the headlines because of the recent tragedy in Arizona. Unfortunately, as most mental health advocates and families with affected members are already all too aware, this little dustup over services available will soon fade, as will any bump in funding it creates. It will stay faded until the next tragedy. Then the cycle will again kick in.

The problems inherent in dealing with people with mental illness are multiple and often can seem insurmountable. For starters, this is a chronic illness that is never “cured”. It can be controlled but that control can slip faster than a politician’s ethics. For many people with mental illness, taking medication makes them feel much, much better. And when they are feeling that much better, they resent some of the chronic side effects of the fairly heavy-duty drugs they must take daily. Eventually they figure they are doing so well they don’t need medication anymore. And the cycle starts anew.

Another problem in helping the mentally ill is that we are (thankfully) a country that recognizes the rights of individuals to make their own decisions so long as those decisions do not harm them or others. So even though the family of a mentally ill person might see the disintegration in thought and behavior occurring, until such time as it causes significant harm or danger to someone, there is nothing the law can do to help them.

What families get to do is watch a person they love descend further into that black hole until society finally finds their actions so egregious that they are taken to a locked facility for the help they do not want to willingly accept. And what happens in that facility? They are given counseling and medication and they slowly come back to a healthier mental state. Which means that they are no longer considered a threat to themselves or others and so are released. Cue the start of the cycle again.

For most families living with this cycle, the tragedy in Arizona is one they know could happen to them. They know the next phone call can bring news of some unimaginable horror, whether because their relative has hurt someone or finally, unable to stand the constant pain, permanently put themselves beyond that pain.

The answers for those suffering from mental illnesses are few and rarely totally successful. Because of the chronic nature of these diseases, society is asked to continue to put money into care for people who are often not able to contribute back to society anything near what society is asked to give to them. Some are. But many cling to the rungs of “sanity” with their fingertips and have no energy to do much more than hold on.

Our society is not famous for being patient. When problems arise, we want them solved sometime between the first commercial and the next show. Beyond that we tend to lose focus.

It was easier in the past when people with mental illnesses were put in institutions and we locked the doors and walked away. But what was easier for society was not very helpful to the mentally ill, nor was it very fair to lock people up for their whole lives because they were ill. Even some murderers get a chance for parole. And most mentally ill people are simply not guilty of anything more or less than being ill.

The hope, as always, is that someday science will find the root cause of mental illness and a way to treat it at its base so that people can go on to live healthy productive lives. Until that time, our resources are limited and the impetus for us as a society to provide the amount of care needed to keep both us and people suffering from these illnesses safe waxes and wanes with each new tragedy.

Meanwhile, family watch with grief as someone they love so very much is seemingly immune to all their attempts to help. Someday, we will look back at the way we treat mental illness today the same way we look back at bleeding patients to cure their black humors in medieval times – something barbaric and ignorant. Yet, tragically, it’s all we currently have to offer.