Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness
02. May 2010
My mother committed suicide. She died 30 years ago next month at the age of 53 from untreated, end-stage depression. I was 26 and had reaped the benefits of a loving, devoted mother. All I could do was watch helplessly as she fought the overwhelming symptoms of anxiety and despair.
Mom’s death was a tragic loss, but I found comfort knowing she was finally at peace, free from the bondage of a devastating illness over which she had no control. What made it unbearable was the reaction to her death.
It was never discussed. My dad didn’t talk about it. My brother, sister and I went through the motions of her funeral and burial, but never spoke of it. Friends and neighbors avoided it. Our pastor couldn’t even look us in the eye because of it.
Had “it” been cancer, heart disease or complications of diabetes, there would have been plenty of talking, crying and hugging. But what happened to my mother was unspeakable.
I was angry then, but now I understand. In those days, little was known about mental illness. Many actually believed it might be demon possession. Ignorance is scary, and a stigma is often attached to that which we don’t understand.
Sadly, 30 years later the stigma still exists, and THAT makes me mad. We know better today. In the hands of trained medical professionals, treatment for most depressive disorders is entirely effective. And still… many suffer in silence because of the “stigma.”
I know. Along with her curly hair, I inherited my mother’s clinical depression. I was 34 when the extreme anxiety and depression overwhelmed me. I was sure life as I knew it was over. I was lucky. I had support. An excellent psychiatrist worked with me until we found the right medication. A caring psychologist helped me learn what I could do to help. Within weeks, my symptoms subsided and I got back my joy.
I still have depression. It’s a chronic condition for which I gratefully take medication every day. It’s no big deal, really.
Why all the discomfort, shame and behind-the-back whispers when it comes to mental illness? With all that can go wrong with our bodies, who decided that our brain with its complex chemistry that controls our moods, emotions, sleep patterns and appetites should be exempt?! I could, after all, have chronic asthma, severe allergies, insulin-dependant diabetes or high blood pressure, and feel perfectly free to discuss it with most anyone. No one should be made to feel guilty or at fault because of a medical condition.
May is Mental Health Awareness month. Let’s talk about it. It’s time for mental illness to get some respect from a society that still wants to believe in demons.
If you or a loved one is suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, or any other type of mental illness, Palomar Health can help. We offer inpatient and outpatient treatment for adults and older adults, at both Palomar Medical Center in Escondido and Pomerado Hospital in Poway.
For more information, please call 800.336.2000 or visit our Behavioral Health Department.
We offer the following screenings on our website:
- Bipolar Disorder
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
- Brief Screen for Adolescent Depression
Contact Carol by emailing her at Carol@palomarhealth.org.