Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Scourge of Mental Illness

Last night we attended one of our congregation's annual beef supper fundraisers.  This most giving of congregations mails out free tickets to several people in the town who do not attend our church, but who are in various types of need.  

One of the groups represented is the mentally ill.  There were a number of people there last night suffering the effects of several types of mental illness and one fellow in particular broke my heart.  He is about my age, unkempt, confused, but was obviously delighted to be included in the evening.  He stacked his plate higher and higher with layers of roast beef and potatoes, turnip, peas and carrots, onion salad and buns; in other words prairie cuisine at its finest. He ate slowly and deliberately and went back for seconds.  It was a joy to see someone so delightfully involved in a simple well cooked meal.

He didn't speak to me but I found out his history from people in our church who have known him for years.  This man suffers from schizophrenia, a wicked wicked illness that debilitates its sufferers with mental delusions and adverse physical reactions to strong treatment medications. It often destroys their family relationships.  This man is a former well respected professor, an expert in sanskrit, once employed by one of our country's most prestigious universities.  When his mental illness struck he was no longer able to teach, his marriage ended and one of his grown daughters is lost in a world of drugs and violence, possibly no longer living.....but no one knows for certain as she has not been heard from in several years.  His mind and heart are broken because of this horrendous illness.  He couldn't cope with continuing to live in a large city so returned to his home town where he is cared for by many friends.

One of my son's best friends in high school was diagnosed with schizophrenia a couple of years after graduation.  He was filled with promise for his future, had a wonderful sense of humour and was one of the kindest young men we had ever met.  Now he is physically swollen, as well as being a near zombie, from the medications required to control his illness and prevent him from becoming violent.  He has made a couple of attempts on his own life because he has found nothing worth living for.  Remembering him as he was before the diagnosis it is incredibly difficult to believe it is the same person. His family has managed not to come completely apart at the seams but it has taken a lot of work.

Schizophrenia and other mental illnesses have become rampant in our society and culture.  Few are left untouched by this plague it seems as more families must learn to cope with their own or a family member's depression, manic episodes, bulimia and anorexia etc. My father in law suffered with schizophrenia for many years with the possible addition of manic depression the last few years of his life.  He had good times and bad times during his long illness, but eventually it split the family apart and the long term effects can still be seen in the way they relate to people outside their own immediate family structure even though he passed away 10 years ago.  Mental illness suffered by a family member tends to drive the remaining family inward for their own protection.  The outside world doesn't understand the mentally ill. Other people question and judge and mistreat those trying desperately to cope.  I had not dealt with mental illness before I was married.  Sometimes it has been very difficult to deal with, and my own marriage has come as close to ending as it ever has due to fall out created by my inlaw's schizophrenia.  

So many advertisements on tv and in magazines now are for medications to treat various mental illnesses.  It is very good that these illnesses are being brought out into the light.  There are more  support groups for the families and friends of the afflicted as mental illness comes out of the shadows. Perhaps advertising and support groups can help to eventually eliminate the stigma that has accompanied mental illness patients and their families in the past.  However as good as these things can be and as much help as they can give, they don't bring the medical community any closer to discovering and eradicating these illnesses.  The long term damage continues in many families and will do so for many years to come.

As more cures for more chronic and lethal illnesses are found I can only pray that mental illnesses will soon be among them.  

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