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Dealing With Mental Illness

April 29, 2011

Dealing With Mental Illness

When I was an adolescent I used to love going to my Aunt Muriel’s house to visit. It was a great house with a pool and a yard filled with mysteries. Mostly I remember pining over the door to my cousin Johnny’s room and the walls inside. The door was covered from head to foot with Mad Magazine stickers. Half of the walls were done to match. On a good day, Johnny would let my sisters and I peel the repeated stickers off the wall for ourselves.

At the age of fourteen, however, things changed for Johnny. After being accepted to Harvard, he went through an internal break. He was soon diagnosed as schizophrenic. He spent the next thirty-five plus years in and out of transition homes plagued by this illness. I remember talks with him over the years at family gatherings, when, through a cloud of smoke of the endless cigarettes he puffed, he would tell me of his latest invention that the federal government had just bought for a top secret project. Some days he was more lucid, others less.

My cousin John died a couple of years ago, from cigarettes, from other physical issues, maybe even from a broken psyche. My sisters and I weren’t sure if this was a blessing. It saddens me so to say that he had never made it to Harvard.

For better or worse, in my life I have encountered many with broken spirits and broken minds. I worked in a well respected residential facility for troubled youth in Los Angeles: Vista del Mar. I loved the work even though I there were times when I left the grounds brokenhearted. Whether it was my naiveté or the faith that youth can overcome, however, more often than not I was hopeful. I believed that the teens at Vista were capable of healing the wounds left by abuse, neglect or abandonment, or of overcoming their addictions. With the exception of very few teens, I did not evaluate these young minds and souls as mentally ill. I saw them as fresh spirits with bruises, that with love and good treatment, would heal. Looking back, though, I believe a fair number of them would have been diagnosed as dealing with one form or another of mental illness.

I don’t know what causes a mind to fracture or a soul to split. Some doctors will tell you it’s chemical; something in the brain is not firing properly or the chemistry is off. Others will say it’s the result of severe abuse or trauma. The former is most likely to have occurred during childhood. The latter is less time specific, as in the case of soldiers returning from tours in Vietnam or Iraq. And then there are those that attribute mental illness to extreme encounters with drugs like heroin.

When it comes down to it, though, the source of the fracture is less important, unless it helps the individual to unwind his or her psyche and therefore, to walk a more balanced path. The greater focus for those of us on the outside, however, is devoted to discovering how to serve and support people who are so fragile. There is first the difficulty in overcoming the fact that people with mental illness are different. They consistently behave in ways that most folks don’t. Because of this, they may strike our inner chord to keep a distance. In some cases, this may be the safest choice. In most instances, however, people who are mentally ill are in our communities, deemed by their physicians as safe, but troubled. They approach us and they need our care. Rather than keeping a distance, they need precisely the opposite: our outreach, if not our investment.

Reaching out to those who are different may be the hardest thing for us to do as humans, especially when the difference is something we don’t understand. We don’t know how to make it go away or what to do to make it better. We don’t know the right thing to say or the right thing to do. We fear for what we don’t understand. For all our discomfort, however, I personally cannot even imagine what it must feel like to be inside a body and mind that is so broken. I can only expect that the discomfort that one with mental illness feels is exponentially greater than the awkwardness that any of us might feel when engaging with one of these individuals. Perhaps the best choice is to reach out our hand in compassion, listen with care, and treat the mentally ill with the same honesty and dignity that we would offer to other individuals. While it may not heal their split souls, it may give them some comfort as they navigate through their fractured worlds.

Robin Damsky

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