I’ve given a lot of thought to mental illness over the years, primarily because I have a cousin with severe issues, as well as other family members who suffer from depression. I was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder nearly ten years ago. Add to that the fact that I’ve edited a couple of pieces for a previous job about depression and mood disorders.
After the horrible school shooting up in Connecticut fairly recently, I began talking with my kids about school violence, mental illness and caring about the world around them. Not fun conversations (aside from the compassion part).
This past weekend I watched my cousin, who is so heavily medicated at this point that he can barely interact with anyone, sleep (loudly snoring) during a family get together and just exist among the rest of the family. When he awoke, he sad, smoking electronic cigarettes and just existing. As we were leaving, he told me about the new books he’s working on regarding his schizophrenia. He still has ambition despite the medication. He is hopeful that his stories will help educate people about what he lives with and maybe help someone.
Yesterday I stopped in a grocery store for lunch and saw the front page of a magazine displaying an article about schizophrenia and violence and how it affected the writer’s family. His cousin had murdered his own father after a particular sudden onset of mental illness. A must read for me, the magazine is now in my home.
I consider my family very fortunate despite the “skeletons” we keep in an open closet. My kids have grown up understanding that my cousin also did a lot of drugs as a teen. Excessive amounts. Alcohol went hand-in-hand, of course. He’s a great resource to say, “Look what can happen.” But with his diagnoses these past few years, the question has arisen – What came first? His drug use or his mental illness? Was his drug use to escape from the voices and uncomfortable feelings in his own mind? Or were the drugs the cause of the illness that now defines him?
It has taken me a long time to understand what little I do about mood disorders (including seasonal depression) and mental illness. My family has substance abuse in various forms also plaguing it (again, which comes first? issues coping, then substance abuse? or substance abuse causing problems?). I have chosen to wean myself off of medication that helped me control the anxiety that held me in its grip for so long. I’m doing pretty well. I’m learning about holistic ways of managing myself rather than take pharmaceuticals. It’s my choice. For now.
But what happens when a person can’t work through through the disjointed and conflicting thoughts and doesn’t have a family to help?
I don’t think it’s a big surprise to see the same lack of… well, anything… in the eyes of the Colorado Movie Theater Shooter, Jodi Arias and a local NE Ohioan – TJ Lane from ChardonHigh School. They have the same empty, haunted look. It would be more terrifying if they were walking the streets instead of already in custody, but their empty eyes still instill a very unsettling feeling through the TV. Today I read of a homeless man in Florence, Italy, who stabbed a tourist in the kidney and lung with no provocation. I’m willing to bet there is nothing in his eyes either. I’m sure none of them are unlike Charles Manson in different degrees. One look at Charles and you know to stay far away.
I admire my aunt greatly for taking on the role of caregiver to her son (who is now well into middle age). With her dedication he has gotten the help he’s needed and has not hurt anyone – despite the voices that tell him to. I’m only a slighty embarrassed to admit that I avoided family gatherings for years because I was afraid of him. The cousin I remember growing up was ambitious, handsome, warm, encouraging and gave great hugs. Now he is a shell of himself and his potential. I don’t know if the voices have stopped because I’m afraid to ask. But I do know they had told him to kill. There was a “person” who he saw who would follow him around and talk to him. Encouraging him to do harm. My aunt took her son to doctors, committed him to hospitals on occasion to help him, and made sure he was okay. For a while he was unable to be around family because of social phobias. He’d come out of his room, eat and retreat. Very unsettling. Now, he’ll attend family gatherings, sit, sleep, smoke tobacco-less cigarettes and eat. At Christmas he was willing to dress as Santa for the younger kids in our family. Sometimes we can have conversations with him, mostly we just acknowledge that he’s there.
What would have happened to any of us/all of us if he hadn’t gotten the care he has? I hate to consider that possibility, but I have. For years.
Mental illness is far more prevalent than anyone wants to believe. Myself included.
An 11-year old boy is recently in the news for plotting with a 10-year old to kill their classmates. One by one. These boys are my son’s age. My “baby” who has incredible compassion when people or animals are hurt. The older boy in this particular case, according to police, showed no emotion when he confessed. As much as I detested video games and how they desensitize (in my opinion), no amount of hours starting at a screen could cause a child of 10 or 11 to be so soul-less. A fifteen year old stabbed to death his adopted siblings. A brother stabbed his sister to death. These are just recent stories.
It’s not just the murders. It’s the stories of abductions and abuse that show us how common these mental illnesses are. The kidnappers who keep their victims, abusing them in various ways, for years. The most disturbing to me are the children who kill and the mothers who kill their own. It is beyond my comprehension. But each “category” of violence is just as horrible.
Is it our society today that ignores the signs of troubled children and adults?Are we moving too fast to pay attention? What are the warning signs?
When I was growing up, one of the mandatory books we read in elementary school was a book called, “Lisa, Bright and Dark.” It was the story of a popular girl who fell deep into mental illness and despite her friend’s pleas for help, her parents ignored the issues. Heavy reading for 11 year olds. But it made a huge impact. I recently reread it and I still felt it to the core. How tragic that her parents didn’t listen to the cries for help. But, how many of these recent murders could have been prevented if parents and society were more involved?
Our society is fascinated with stories of the mentally ill – Silence of the Lambs, American Horror Story, American Psycho, The Bone Collector, Dexter, The Following – and the harm people with issues do to those with whom they come into contact. But what are we doing to find potential issues and save the person and, possibly, others? We glorify the violence, the creativity behind the crimes. Instant fame for the person. The families of the victims are forever changed. Yet, more movies and television shows are made detailing the depravity that exists. Is it just the overwhelming amount of media coverage of these goings on, as well as the “Hollywood Touch,” that make it seem so overwhelming or is it truly a change in our society?
I listen closely to the stories my kids tell me – so-and-so beat up this other kid and he’s already been arrested, whatshisname tried to punch me – some stories are “kids being kids,” but some chill me to the core. One child we knew would look in people’s windows, steal from the neighbors, throw basketballs at birds admittedly trying to kill them and would compulsively lie. I do believe that there are signs. But how do we differentiate “childhood antics” from the truly disturbing. Is it a gut feeling? Do we, as society, turn a blind eye like we so often do, and just wait?
I have no answers for any of this other than – I truly believe that as a society we are all responsible. We have become too fast moving to take care of one another. Medical help is sometimes too expensive. We’re afraid of being “the bad guy” and forcing someone into treatment. It will take a village mentality across our country to make a difference. We should not be afraid of reporting issues – rather than reporting a crime later. We need to stand firm in caring for our children, our neighbor’s children. We need to be less offended if someone asks if we are okay and need help if we feel “off” or if a family member is acting unusually.
Changes take time. Getting individuals the proper help take time. It’s never too late to make a change in someone’s life. In society. Let’s take the blinders off and starting making changes. Reach out to someone who is hurting. Comfort someone who fears. Petition for change in mental health care policies. We all are responsible for changing what we see is wrong. If we continue to turn our backs on those that need us most, society will suffer. The next generation will pay the price.