Saturday, October 11, 2014

Some final words about Mental Health Awareness Week

I could not let Mental Health Awareness Week go by without commenting.

The week, promoted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), was a week filled with a flurry of social media posts, including a series of images (see one above). Thursday, Oct. 9, was National Depression Screening Day. I’ve already had mine – several in fact -- and depression was located in various regions of my body – my heart, my celebral cortex, my Islets of Langerhans. I take meds for it, see my psychiatrist every six months and my therapist every week. I work out at the YMCA every other day and eat right.

Last weekend I made chili for the Broncos game. This is not a recommended treatment for depression. Following the Broncos may even cause depression – the jury’s still out. I make my own chili because I love chili and the store-bought variety comes with tons of salt. Too much salt causes my heart to work harder to get rid of fluid build-up. An overworked heart negates the medication I take to keep it calm and reliable. An overworked heart may go into a fatal arrhythmia and would cause my ICD to kick in which, in turn, would cause me to flop around on the floor like a fish. Depression would follow, as would stares of passers-by.

Homemade chili, you see, can ease both heart disease and depression. Mine features lots of pepper slices and tomatoes, our planet’s super-food. No-salt-added tomato sauce. It’s meaty with the lowest-fat hamburger I can find. Flavoring is a problem that no amount of Mrs. Dash, cumin, and chili power can remedy. Our taste buds are primed for salt and lots of it. We need some salt as our body’s origins are in the briny deep. I’m still working on that part of the chili challenge.

It’s not that easy to get the same attention for mental illness as is given to heart disease. I’m pleased that heart disease gets lots of attention and much funding. I might not be alive if that were not the case. I am pleased that my local hospital has a spiffy new cancer center and that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Everyone wears pink, even NFL players and cowboys (at least they do every summer at the CFD Rodeo's "Tough enough to wear pink" day). As for the NFL -- those were some bitchin’ pink cleats that the Houston and Indy players were wearing on Thursday Night Football. Good game, too.

I didn’t spy many green ribbons or green shoes this week. As I said, social media lit up with references to depression and schizophrenia and bipolar. USA Today did a series on mental illness and suicide. Nice job – I read it all. Shocking stats revealed that 40,000 Americans killed themselves last year. It’s shocking enough that an average of 22 military veterans take their lives daily. But to really be shocked, you have to read their stories. Many don’t get any help at all, or the right kind of help. But many do and still kill themselves. Many civilians with mental illnesses don’t get any help at all, or can’t afford it, or don’t get the proper treatments. They jump off bridges or shoot themselves or OD on pills with alarming regularity. Does that mean it’s hopeless? No, but people who feel hopeless may not get help because of the stigma attached to mental illness or the “cowboy up” mentality that we have in Wyoming and other western states. “Cowboy up” is not a helpful response to someone who needs help. “Tough it out” or “lighten up” – also not helpful responses. But you can’t really blame people. If they haven’t experienced a mental health challenge themselves or with a friend or family members, they may be clueless.

I walk around with an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator in my chest. My wife Chris walks around with an insulin pump on her hip. We often get into lively discussions with people with heart disease and diabetes. We compare experiences and devices. Growing old, it seems, is filled with these types of conversations. Having a heart attack gives you carte blanche to bore everyone silly with your story.

Want to stop a lively conversation in its tracks? Bring up mental illness. Chris was at a community gathering this week and was having a good old time talking to old friends about her meter and my ICD. Lots of people have encounters with heart abnormalities and blood sugar levels. But when they asked about our daughter -- let's call her Margaret -- and Chris told them she was in a mental health treatment center, the conversation stopped. Crickets chirped. Tumbleweeds rolled through the room. The friends excused themselves and Chris was left standing there, an intriguing story hanging from her lips.

Too bad they didn’t stick around to hear the story. Margaret has received a variety of diagnoses. Bipolar. Borderline personal disorder, with and without bipolar. Severe depression. She’s a cutter too, you see, which usually freaks out the uninitiated. It freaked me out when I first found out about it. She’s used knives, box cutters, razors and even broken glass to carve a topo map of scars on her arms and legs and stomach. It’s a constant reminder of her traumas. It will always be a reminder to her as the challenges she faced as a teen and young woman. She may arrive at a place where she can live with her mental illness, maybe even outgrow the worst symptoms. But she’ll always have the scars. When she’s 63 as I am now, her grandchildren may ask, “Grandma, where did you get those scars?” She can tell any story she wants, as grandparents do. But I have a feeling she will share the truth. That may help them somewhere down the line. This mental illness runs in our family, you see, and DNA has a funny way of replicating itself. Science may come up with answers. Better, more targeted drugs with fewer side-effects. Better and more widely available therapy. Less stigma. Empathy breaking out all over.

Meanwhile, there are social media images to post and blogs to write. Chili warms on the stove. Life is a series of little treatments, tiny steps, unexpected laughter. Sorrow awaits you around every turn. Be aware.      

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