May is Mental Health Awareness Month and today is Mental Health Blogging Day, I just learned. I’m taking this opportunity to shed light on this topic and stray a little bit from talking about cancer, even though it is difficult to share.
According to the University of Southern California School of Social Work, more than 26 percent of all American adults are affected by some type of mental disorder. About 2.6 percent have bi-polar disorder, an illness which affected my family in a big way.
When I was seven, I noticed my 15-year-old brother Mitch had what appeared to be two personalities. Sometimes he was talkative, obnoxious and embarrassing (to me). Others he was quiet and depressed. At eight, my father tried to commit suicide by running the car in our closed garage. He was diagnosed with bi-polar (then known as manic depression) and later so was my brother. My dad was more “functional” than Mitch. He held jobs, later re-married after divorcing my mom (who has un-diagnosed mental illness) and enjoyed retirement until his health failed. My brother could never hold a job or a relationship and lived with my mother until he died at the young age of 56.
Ironically and sadly, both my brother and dad passively killed themselves. My father stopped eating after he became depressed over losing his eyesight to macular degeneration. He died two weeks after I was diagnosed with breast cancer and never knew about it. About a decade later, Mitch died of a stroke, we think, after gorging himself with food and quickly gaining about 100 pounds.
To say mental illness has affected me and our family would be understatement. In my younger years, I was plagued by bouts of depression, although nothing like that of my dad and brother. It is, indeed, a family disease. Yet it is not a disease many people talk about. In fact, I feel hesitant sharing all this because of the taboo still associated with it. For some reason, our society thinks it’s just something people can “snap out of,” but it isn’t. Like any disease, it requires professional treatment.
My therapist stated it this way when I was depressed, “If you broke your leg, you would need a cast.” Depression, in my case, was a chemical imbalance in my brain. It had nothing to do with not trying hard enough or a bad attitude. I was doing everything I could and nothing worked. For a whole month I didn’t sleep; I felt like I was walking around in a fog and my body was numb. I chose to go on antidepressants to feel normal again. I know it is not a choice for everyone, but it worked for me.
I worry because I feel our country does not do enough to identify and treat mental illness. Most of the mass killings are associated with untreated disorders – from post-traumatic stress syndrome to schizophrenia. It is easy to demonize these people, but it makes you wonder what could be prevented if only they got help.
I will put in one reference to cancer. Treatment and the diagnosis alone often causes depression. It’s more than feeling of sadness; it’s a debilitating disease that can interfere with daily functions. If you feel like you’e in a hole you cannot climb out of, please get help. There is no shame, and I believe (and many studies have shown) depression can affect survival outcomes.