Posts tagged mental illness
Posts tagged mental illness
Video description: Live with your strength, not with your weaknesses. "Bizarre how fast your life can change," that’s how Clarissa started her talk. She worked as a caregiver when she got mentally ill.
My mother was a woman hollowed out like a tree struck by lightning. I wanted to know why.
Ever since her first suicide attempt, in 1978, when I was 22, I had been trying to fill in gaps. She was gone much of the time in my early childhood, and when she returned nobody spoke about the absence.
I learned much later that she had suffered acute depression after my younger sister’s birth in 1957. She was in hospitals and sanitariums being shot full of insulin — a treatment then in vogue for severe mental disorder — and electricity. The resulting spasms, seizures, convulsions and comas were supposed to jar her from her “puerperal psychosis,” the term then used in England for postpartum depression.
In 1958, my mother was admitted to the Holloway Sanatorium, the sprawling Victorian Gothic fantasy of a 19th-century tycoon, Thomas Holloway, who amassed a fortune through the sale of dubious medicinal concoctions. The sanitarium, opened in 1885, was a great heap of gabled redbrick buildings, topped by a tower rising 145 feet into the damp air of Surrey.
Run initially as a private institution, the Holloway Sanatorium became a mental hospital within Britain’s National Health Service after World War II. It was not closed until 1981. Many of its records and casebooks were burned. The gutted building became a setting for horror movies. Directors could not believe their luck. It is now a gated community of luxury homes.
Some records were preserved at the Surrey History Center. In the faint hope that a trace remained of my mother, I wrote to inquire. My parents had never spoken in any detail of her first depression. A letter came back a few weeks later. References to June Bernice Cohen had been located in the admissions register and in ward reports from July 1958.
These showed that “she was patient number 9413, was admitted on 25th July 1958 and discharged on 12th September 1958.” The ward reports for most of August and September had vanished. I applied under Britain’s Freedom of Information Act to see the records.
My re-encounter with my mother involved painstaking negotiation with an archivist. At last I was presented with the weighty register for female patients. Entries are written with fountain pen in cursive script. In columns across the page my mother is identified. “Name: June Bernice COHEN. Ref Number: 9413. Age: 29. Marital Status: Married. Religion: JEW.”
I stared at her age — so young — and at the capitalized entry under religion: “JEW.” The noun form has a weight the adjective, Jewish, lacks. It seems loaded with a monosyllabic distaste, which was redoubled by the strange use of the uppercase. June was not religious. She is the youngest on the page. She is also the only non-Christian.
The first ward notes on my mother read, “History of depression in varying degrees since birth of second child, now fourteen months old. Husband is engaged in medical research. Patient has some private psychotherapy and also modified insulin treatment at St. Mary’s last month, being discharged July 8th. On admission she was depressed, tearful and withdrawn.”
The doctor examining my mother was struck by how “her tension increased remarkably on mention of latest child.” I ran my fingers over the page and paused at “JEW.” I wanted to take a soothing poultice to her face.
On July 28, 1958, my mother was visited by a Dr. Storey. He “confirms diagnosis of post-puerperal depression and advises Electro-Convulsive Therapy (ECT), which patient and husband are now willing to accept.”
She first underwent electroshock treatment on July 30, 1958. I see my slight young mother with metal plates on either side of her head, flattening her dark curls, her heart racing as her skull is enclosed in a high-voltage carapace. I can almost taste the material wedged in her over-salivating mouth for her to bite on as the current passes.
The treatment was repeated a second time, on Aug. 1, 1958. That was one day before my third birthday. So, at last, that is where she was.
I now have some facts to anchor memory, fragments to fill absence. My mother, who recovered sufficiently to be stable, if fragile, for about 15 years through my childhood and adolescence, would suffer from manic depression, or bipolar disorder, through the latter third of her life. She died in 1999 at the age of 69. The ravages of this condition I observed; the onset of her mental instability I only felt.
The hidden hurts most. Mental illness is still too clouded in taboo. It took me a long time to find where my mother disappeared to. Knowledge in itself resolves nothing, but it helps.
Acceptance — it comes down to that. This is how I came to this point, and to this place, by this looping road, from such anguish, and I am still alive and full of hope.
Is it melancholy to think that a world that Robin Williams can’t live in must be broken? To tie this sad event to the overarching misery of our times?
– Russell Brand, comedian/actor
Like millions, I am sitting with the fact that one of the funniest people to grace the planet has died by his own hand. Robin Williams’ death has hit people of my generation, Generation X, especially hard. After all, his face flashed often across our childhood screens. Mork and Mindy episodes were a source of solace for me as a little girl, as I bounced around between foster homes and family members’ homes, while my single mother cycled in and out of the state mental hospital, fighting to survive. I could laugh and say “nanu, nanu – shazbot” and “KO” and do the silly hand sign and forget for just a little while about living a life I didn’t ask for.
“You’re only given one little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it,” may become one of Robin Williams’ most famous quotes. I was always struck by how he moved so seamlessly between wacky comedy and the most intense dramas. He was so magnificently able to capture the human experience in all its extremes. He threw all that intensity right into our faces, undeniable, raw, frenetic. He showed us our own naked vulnerability and sparks of madness and gave us permission to laugh in the face of all that is wrong in this world.
In the wake of his death, many people are understandably jumping to identify causes. Depending on who you talk to, Robin Williams’ suicide was caused by depression, it was caused by bipolar disorder, it was caused by the drugs, prescription or otherwise. We just don’t know.
As a suicide attempt survivor myself, I can attest that it’s not that easy to find any single cause for the urge to die. It’s true that along with street drugs, SSRI antidepressants and other psych drugs can certainly increase suicide risk in some people. A decade ago, I was one of many who fought and won to get to the FDA to put a black box warning on SSRIs to warn the public of these very real risks. While a drug, legal or illegal, may give us the impetus we wouldn’t otherwise have had to act on suicidal thoughts, for some of us it’s more complex than that.
Our reasons for wanting to die are as varied as our reasons for wanting to live. That, I believe, is the great mystery of suicide.
But I invite us all not to fear the mystery; not to be struck hopeless by it. We can save each other’s lives; better yet, we can find and share reasons to keep on living. If we have 20 seconds, we can share information about a hotline or a warmline. But if we want to really see this horrific epidemic end, we all have to get more involved.
As someone who has looked into the void and longed for it more than once, I can attest that anyone who reaches out in those darkest of times is truly remarkable. It is, tragically, when I am most distressed and most in need of love and acceptance, that I have the hardest time reaching out. This is not an absolution of personal responsibility, because we all must accept some measure of that; rather a recognition that we shouldn’t put the full onus on a suicidal person to “reach out” and “ask for help.” We need to reach out and help. I have written about the problems with the master narrative of suicide prevention, and how punitive and dehumanizing much of the “help” out there currently is. This blog isn’t about that. I’m talking about help that heals.
My point is that we must change the way we relate to ourselves and one another. In revolutionary ways. We must wake up to the fact that we have been socialized since birth to hide the fullness of who we really are. Robin Williams got to act it all out and the world loved him for it. He expressed the madness, the wildness, that we have been conditioned to hide. We are generally chastised for laughing too hard or crying too loud or being too sensitive. We have been trained to put on a proper face and act like all is well. If for some reason we can’t naturally do that (and most of us can’t), we devise ways to cope with the awful unbearableness of it all. They may be fairly innocuous, like binge watching Orange is the New Black in bed all weekend long. Or we may seek to stop the pain in innumerable ways that we know will kill us in the end — from binge eating to chain smoking to staring down a bottle of whiskey or pills.
If we only realized just how many people walked around carrying heavy burdens that are invisible to the world, and were doing every fucking thing possible to keep from cracking under the weight, we would stop feeling so alone and isolated carrying our own. We could put down our burdens and rest, in the all-encompassing field of our human vulnerability and strength.
“Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle,” said theologian Ian MacLaren. I am struck by the imperative need for us all to take up the challenge to be kinder to ourselves and others. There is so much suffering in the world. How often do we ask ourselves, in the midst of responding to Facebook posts, Tweets, and emails: how can I relieve suffering? At the very least, how do I not add to it?
No one person can fix this mess we have gotten ourselves into as a species, but we can each be a part of bringing more compassion and acceptance into the world. First, we have to learn to practice it with ourselves. We can be the antidote to the fear and sorrow that exists within us, in other people, and in the world “out there.” Kindness is dismissed as bullshit in a world that values power over others. But as mindfulness teacher Sharon Salzberg reminds us, kindness is a “force.” If unleashed in vast quantities, it could literally reverse the cycle of misery on this planet.
When will we stop walking around in these miraculous, vulnerable human bodies seeing ourselves as separate? What will it take for us to realize our interconnectedness; to act from a deep understanding that suicidal people are not to be feared and judged, but to be embraced and held in the light of understanding and true empathy? Empathy sees that we are all connected, and thus demands well-being for all.
I think of the people who report walking to the bridge and said to themselves, “if one person smiles at me or talks to me, I won’t jump.” Lately I try to go out of my way to smile at people, to talk to people, even if they look at me funny because they aren’t used to random strangers smiling at them or talking to them. Come to think of it, I think talking to strangers is definitely a symptom of some severe mental disorder in the DSM-V.
But seriously, folks. It strikes me that breaking down our collective walls of isolation, of chiseling away our carefully constructed masks, of taking care of ourselves and each other, of judging less and loving more, may be among the most important things we can do with our lives. We can simply value people, not for what they do or what they achieve in the world, but because they are alive on this planet with us, right now, sharing these troubled, turbulent and painfully beautiful times.
In the end, we are stunningly diverse, yet there are basic human needs that we all have in common. The ancient practice of lovingkindness exhorts us to wish for ourselves and all beings to be safe, to be healthy, to be free, to live with ease. How can we create a world where these universal human needs are met? I think this is one of the primary questions we should all be asking ourselves right now, and figuring out the answers together.
I don’t claim that smiling at the person who makes your coffee or talking to a stranger on the metro will save the planet. What I do believe is that if we all made human connection, safety, and a sense of shared belonging among our top priorities, if we all tried in ways large and small to end our collective isolation and suffering, this world would be a safer place to be human. And a lot of people might not be eager to leave so soon.
Nanu, nanu, Robin Williams. Rest in peace.
Even though schizophrenia is one of the most severe forms of mental illness, nearly 40 percent of people with the disorder say they’re happy, new research contends.
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, surveyed 72 schizophrenia patients, ranging in age from 23 to 70, living in the San Diego area, and found that 37 percent said they were happy all or most of the time.
Their happiness wasn’t related to the length or severity of their mental illness, to their mental or physical status, or to factors such as age and education. Instead, their happiness was associated with positive mental and social characteristics such as optimism, resilience and lower stress levels, the researchers said.
The findings are valuable because these positive traits can be taught to many people, said the authors of the study, which was published online Aug. 18 in the journal Schizophrenia Research.
"People tend to think that happiness in schizophrenia is an oxymoron," senior author Dr. Dilip Jeste, a professor of psychiatry and neurosciences, said in a university news release.
"Without discounting the suffering this disease inflicts on people, our study shows that happiness is an attainable goal for at least some schizophrenia patients. This means we can help make these individuals’ lives happier," Jeste added.
By way of comparison, about 83 percent of people without schizophrenia said they were happy most or all of the time. And none of the people without schizophrenia said they were never or rarely happy, compared with about 15 percent of those with the mental disorder.
"People with schizophrenia are clearly less happy than those in the general population at large, but this is not surprising," study lead author Barton Palmer, a professor in the university’s department of psychiatry, said in the news release.
"What is impressive is that almost 40 percent of these patients are reporting happiness and that their happiness is associated with positive psychosocial attributes that can be potentially enhanced," Palmer added.
The study was funded, in part, by the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).
To Know Suicide: Depression Can Be Treated, but It Takes Competence
By Kay Redfield Jamison, The New York Times Opinion Pages
BALTIMORE — WHEN the American artist Ralph Barton killed himself in 1931 he left behind a suicide note explaining why, in the midst of a seemingly good and full life, he had chosen to die.
“Everyone who has known me and who hears of this,” he wrote, “will have a different hypothesis to offer to explain why I did it.”
Most of the explanations, about problems in his life, would be completely wrong, he predicted. “I have had few real difficulties,” he said, and “more than my share of affection and appreciation.” Yet his work had become torture, and he had become, he felt, a cause of unhappiness to others. “I have run from wife to wife, from house to house, and from country to country, in a ridiculous effort to escape from myself,” he wrote. The reason he gave for his suicide was a lifelong “melancholia” worsening into “definite symptoms of manic-depressive insanity.”
Barton was correct about the reactions of others. It is often easier to account for a suicide by external causes like marital or work problems, physical illness, financial stress or trouble with the law than it is to attribute it to mental illness.
Certainly, stress is important and often interacts dangerously with depression. But the most important risk factor for suicide is mental illness, especially depression or bipolar disorder (also known as manic-depressive illness). When depression is accompanied by alcohol or drug abuse, which it commonly is, the risk of suicide increases perilously.
Suicidal depression involves a kind of pain and hopelessness that is impossible to describe — and I have tried. I teach in psychiatry and have written about my bipolar illness, but words struggle to do justice to it. How can you say what it feels like to go from being someone who loves life to wishing only to die?
Suicidal depression is a state of cold, agitated horror and relentless despair. The things that you most love in life leach away. Everything is an effort, all day and throughout the night. There is no hope, no point, no nothing.
The burden you know yourself to be to others is intolerable. So, too, is the agitation from the mania that may simmer within a depression. There is no way out and an endless road ahead. When someone is in this state, suicide can seem a bad choice but the only one.
It has been a long time since I have known suicidal depression. I am one of millions who have been treated for depression and gotten well; I was lucky enough to have a psychiatrist well versed in using lithium and knowledgeable about my illness, and who was also an excellent psychotherapist.
This is not, unfortunately, everyone’s experience. Many different professionals treat depression, including family practitioners, internists and gynecologists, as well as psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and social workers. This results in wildly different levels of competence. Many who treat depression are not well trained in the distinction among types of depression. There is no common standard for education about diagnosis.
Distinguishing between bipolar depression and major depressive disorder, for example, can be difficult, and mistakes are common. Misdiagnosis can be lethal. Medications that work well for some forms of depression induce agitation in others. We expect well-informed treatment for cancer or heart disease; it matters no less for depression.
We know, for instance, that lithium greatly decreases the risk of suicide in patients with mood disorders like bipolar illness, yet it is too often a drug of last resort. We know, too, that medication combined with psychotherapy is generally more effective for moderate to severe depression than either treatment alone. Yet many clinicians continue to pitch their tents exclusively in either the psychopharmacology or the psychotherapy camp. And we know that many people who have suicidal depression will respond well to electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), yet prejudice against the treatment, rather than science, holds sway in many hospitals and clinical practices.
Severely depressed patients, and their family members when possible, should be involved in discussions about suicide. Depression usually dulls the ability to think and remember, so patients should be given written information about their illness and treatment, and about symptoms of particular concern for suicide risk — like agitation, sleeplessness and impulsiveness. Once a suicidally depressed patient has recovered, it is valuable for the doctor, patient and family members to discuss what was helpful in the treatment and what should be done if the person becomes suicidal again.
People who are depressed are not always easy to be with, or to communicate with — depression, irritability and hopelessness can be contagious — so making plans when a patient is well is best. An advance directive that specifies wishes for future treatment and legal arrangements can be helpful. I have one, which specifies, for instance, that I consent to ECT if my doctor and my husband, who is also a physician, think that is the best course of treatment.
Because I teach and write about depression and bipolar illness, I am often asked what is the most important factor in treating bipolar disorder. My answer is competence. Empathy is important, but competence is essential.
I was fortunate that my psychiatrist had both. It was a long trip back to life after nearly dying from a suicide attempt, but he was with me, indeed ahead of me, every slow step of the way.
Kay Redfield Jamison, a professor of psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, is the author of “An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness” and “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide.”