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The Shock and Shame of Mental Illness

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I have lived with mental illness a long time. I am third generation. Yet, over the years, I have been taken in by comments that my illness is a weakness. I was doing well with medication and talk therapy. I had bouts of depression, but I felt well and felt in control of my life -- my moods and feelings. But, I shamefully admit that I became a victim of Tom Cruise. Yes, Tom Cruise, that famous actor, the one who jumped up on Oprah's couch, announcing his love for Katie Holmes (remember that? It seems like a lifetime ago), told me that I didn't need medication. And I listened. To an actor.

I began to think that I was weak if I couldn't live without meds. I am a woman of a certain age and well-educated, and I listened to an actor. Working with my psychiatrist, who I think was indulging me and thankfully carefully watching me, I tried to wean off my medications: twice. Abject failures. She ever so nicely told me that if I tried to wean off again, I could fall so deeply into the abyss that it would be difficult to pull me out. My depression is called chronic recurring. I can go for long periods without any symptoms but then it seeps in and I fall. So I took her advice. I had no intention of tempting fate especially when I had some control over it.

I need the medications to stay healthy. My need is not one that comes from weakness; it comes from an underlying chemical imbalance that talk therapy alone could not fix. There is new research into talk therapy which is showing promise in repairing chemical imbalances in the brain. Some people will get well, or go into remission with talk therapy while others need drugs: like those who can control diabetes with diet while others require diet and drugs insulin.

In 2012 we read of the death of two infants at the hands of their mother. This is the shock and shame of mental illness. This mother went off her anti-depressants because of her concerns regarding anti-depressants and pregnancy/breastfeeding. Would she have taken herself off medication for heart, high blood pressure, diabetes or epilepsy without consulting her doctor? Would it have even crossed her mind to stop taking medications for the "physical" diseases? No. In January 2013 a mother in Ontario killed her two children and then took her own life.

Heather Stuart, holder of the Mental Health and Anti-Stigma research chair at Queen's University said:

"I think our reaction to psychiatric medication is exaggerated and it's overly negative. The general population would never think twice about taking a cancer drug with significant side effects in order to address their illness, but they're very suspicious of psychotropic medication," she said. "This is part of the stigma around mental illness and psychiatric treatment. Even many very learned people will say, 'If I had a psychiatric illness, I would not take a psychiatric drug. I think they're mind altering, they take your personality away.' They wouldn't do it."

It is possible that one's personality will be changed. Drugs that take away lows also take away the highs and vice versa. My highs are not so high any more but it is worth it because my lows are no longer so long and painful. But, I would suggest that it is better to have a change in personality than kill one's child or a stranger from an acute psychotic break from reality.

I am aware of people living with serious mental illness whose drugs have uncomfortable side effects. I have referred to the story of Kay Redfield Jamison and her experiences on and off lithium.

There are some people who hear voices and are quite comfortable with them. Perhaps their voices are like friends. But, I do remember my supervisor in clinical pastoral education talking to us about people who hear the voice of God telling them to kill someone. It isn't God. Get help.

Just as I learned not to listen to Tom Cruise, I won't let others lead me astray. There's no doubt that medication, not properly monitored is dangerous, but that is true with all medications, even Viagra. Have you listened to the warnings at the end of the commercial, all said so softly and gently as if the side effects were negligible?

People still tell me there are ways of treating my illness that don't include drugs. I wonder if they say the same thing to their friends with high blood pressure, diabetes, epilepsy, cardiac disease, or multiple sclerosis. I doubt it. Those are, after all, real illnesses!

In 400 BC the Greek physician Hippocrates treated mental disorders as diseases to be understood in terms of disturbed physiology, rather than reflections of the displeasure of the gods or evidence of demonic possession, as they were often treated in Egyptian, Indian, Greek, and Roman writings. Twenty-five hundred years later we are re-discovering the physiological underpinnings of these illnesses which hopefully will drown out words like lunacy, madness and insanity and take away the negative attitude toward medication.

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