I want to tell you the story of a guy named Luke (not really his name, of course…but let’s call him that). I have little reason to doubt validity of what he shares as the guy had nothing to gain by emailing me. In fact, I greatly appreciate that someone can open up about this thereby allowing a very personal touch to be added to yesterday’s high-level discussion surrounding mental health and mental illness.
Luke’s story illustrates the classic approach to mental health in this country including its failings and successes. I think it is important for everyone to read this as it encapsulates one person dealing with, and attempting to overcome, some pretty heavy stuff.
Luke has a wife, kids and house. He is a regular 9-5 type of dude. He comes across as a normal guy who lives a pretty regular life. A lot of people would look at Luke and say “this dude has it good, why should he have any problems”. Additionally, Luke lives in a metropolitan area with access to a wide range of doctors and other health professionals. Luke feels that something is just off in his life, things seems a bit off and he gets angry and sad at times. He has always felt angry and sad though, but Luke is an emotional dude and he just accepts this is how he is and always will be.
Time goes by and Luke starts to feel a bit worse, so he seeks out help from his new general practitioner. The GP says he might be depressed and gives him a prescription. He takes his medicine for a few weeks and actually feels worse. He goes back to his GP and the doctor becomes a bit concerned he might be a danger to himself and suggests he go to a facility that treats patients with cases a little bit more severe. He goes there and they diagnose him with depression. He stays there for a week to get himself more in balance and leaves feeling better…but not great. The facility recommends he go see a therapist as well. So, Luke makes a weekly appointment. While this helps…he still doesn’t feel “right”.
More time passes and he just accepts that how he feels is the new standard. After a while though, he starts to feel like things aren’t clicking again and maybe these drugs just aren’t working like they should anymore. He goes to his general practitioner again and his GP puts him on another medicine. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to make a difference.
Only after all of this does Luke decide that maybe it’s time he consult with a psychiatrist. But he runs into a problem. Even though he lives in a metropolitan area it is hard to find one who is covered by his insurance and is also taking new patients. After an exhaustive search he finally locates one. He goes in to see the psychiatrist and after half an hour, the psychiatrist tells Luke he was misdiagnosed. Instead of depression, Luke is bi-polar.
Luke spent years treating only part of his problem because of the conversative nature of mental health treatment. Now that Luke has a new diagnosis, his treatment can fully address the issues Luke has been dealing with, not only in the past few years but possibly a major chunk of his life up until now.
You see, Luke had to take it upon himself to elevate his treatment. His GP only escalated his treatment when Luke appeared to be a danger to himself. Once that no longer seemed to be an issue, the treatment reverted back to the norm of “here try this and call me in three weeks”. It basically fell upon Luke to realize that his treatment wasn’t addressing the full issue. And it’s not as if Luke is alone. It seems as if mental health is one of the issues where self-evaluation is incredibly important. With diseases of the body, you can tell when things aren’t right through pain, bleeding, etc. With mental health, it’s all about “how do I feel and how long have I felt this way”. Not exactly the most clear-cut way to approach things, is it?
Essentially, the approach to mental health in the U.S. is that it is only a true concern in the extreme cases. The problem is, sometimes those extreme cases are not caught in time and then we have to experience traumatic events like those at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary, Columbine High School and this latest incident in Washington, along with many others. But, as I said yesterday, those cases only represent a small sliver of events caused by people who suffer from mental illness.
The thing is, if treated properly, the overwhelming majority of those who suffer from mental illnesses can be perfectly “normal”. Things don’t have to get to a point where those who have mental illnesses are a danger to themselves or others. Instead, they can live rich and full lives by experiencing happiness, joy, and contentment just as those without mental illness do. Mental illness is NOT something that we should push aside because we simply don’t want to deal with it. Rather, we should embrace the medical and societal challenges that these issues present and put just as much time, energy, and money towards them as we do towards the illnesses of the body. They are, after all, just as important to our citizens and our society. It is well past time that Washington and society acknowledge this and face these issues head on, in the true American spirit.