“I follow three rules: Do the right thing, do the best you can, and always show people you care.” ~ Lou Holtz.
I have a famous uncle. Well, he was my father’s uncle, which makes him my great-uncle. And he was not really famous. But he used to correspond with the great psychologist, psychiatrist and founder of analytical psychology, Carl Jung. Which is close enough to famous as far as I am concerned. And I haven’t actually seen those letters that they wrote each other. But apparently my uncle (whose name was an impressive Erastus – shortened to Era – pronounced ‘erra’) suffered from what my mother called ‘spells of melancholy’ which I guess was an old term for depression. Rumor has it she was always watchful over us as kids to see whether we had the same tendencies.
We are not good at talking about mental illness in our society. We casually throw terms around like: not right in the head; crazy; not wrapped too tight; or as my mother often said “he wants his bumps feeling”. That apparently referred to an interesting way of ‘reading’ the bumps of the cranium to determine mental abilities (phrenology). I personally love the saying that insanity is doing things the same way and expecting to get different results, which when you think about it is really a definition of stubborn ignorance!
I recently accompanied some of our students to orient at a brand spanking new behavioral health facility (well, it was actually a refurbished, upcycled old hospital). The very charming Chief Nursing Officer gave her introductory welcome and lecture regarding the environment, the patients, the expectations (absolutely no cell phones while in patient care areas – just like visiting a prison! In fact for most people of this generation, it is like being imprisoned!) and some warnings. But what hit me was a statistic (and I am usually hopeless at remembering statistics), that one in four people in the US have a diagnosed mental illness.
Which made me wonder, how many more have an undiagnosed mental illness? As I wrote earlier, we do not do a good job talking about mental illness in this country. Based on those statistics, every one of us has family members with diagnosed mental illness, and yet we don’t discuss the side effects of our anti-psychotic drugs the way we talk about our blood pressure medications. We don’t admit that Crystal was hospitalized for a month to treat her depression. We don’t share the struggles of living with a relative whose unpredictable behavior makes family events an anxiety-producing occasion. We don’t know how to support those who are struggling to cope with crippling depression and despair.
I have recently been following the blog of a young lady who is institutionalized with an undisclosed mental illness (I believe self-injury is one of the manifestations), and it is an eye-opener into the first-person subjective experience of being deemed mentally ill. If the postings are even 10% accurate, the treatment by healthcare professionals of those with mental illness is demeaning, demoralizing and at times downright cruel. It makes you wonder what happens to those who do not have a voice, an outlet, or someone to speak for them.
We can be very harsh in our judgments of others, somehow being able to see how they should live their lives, or how they got themselves into the messes they are in. But the mind is a complex thing, and there are many factors (some within our control, some not) that can contribute to mental illness. Childhood trauma, abuse, unhealthy home environments can be part of the story, and at the other end of the spectrum there appear to be chemical imbalances over which the person has very little control. How hard must it be to have to choose between dealing with very real delusions that make it hard to function in society, and fog-inducing drugs that sedate your experience of life? And a healthcare system that is quick to reach for a prescription but does not provide for open communication and working through real-life problems?
Of course in the 21st century we have an app for that; an electronic solution to mental health issues. There are online counsellors, and even artificial intelligence programs designed to ‘listen’ to you. But might it be those same electronics that are creating more mental health issues? There are studies which show that depression and suicide among young people (teens) have increased, along with the use of smart phones. One of the factors may be relatively simple: sleep deprivation as teens choose to ‘stay connected’ instead of recharging their brains through a good night’s sleep.
There are many poor health outcomes associated with lack of sleep, from hypertension, to lack of concentration which in turn increases your risks of being in an accident. In fact, they say that getting less than 7-8 hours of sleep a night on a regular basis actually shortens your life! Yet most people I know (especially those who are around my age) have forgotten what it feels like to get a good night’s sleep. Either we fall asleep quickly only to be wide-eyed and begging to go back to sleep 4 hours later, or we toss and turn and find it impossible to turn our minds off.
Yoga and meditation may not be the cure for mental illness, but they certainly help to restore the balance of a stressed out life. We have the keys to our mental and physical health in our hands, but often neglect to do the daily maintenance and instead wait until we break down to evaluate our lifestyle choices.
This deliciously cool Friday morning I encourage you to reconnect with the basics to restore your fractured spirit. Let us treat those with mental illness just the same as we treat those with diabetes or hypertension, without judgment but with support. And make sure you get a good night’s sleep! Have a wonderful weekend, Family!