If you live in tight proximity to mental illness — either in your own life or in that of a dearest loved one — you probably have noticed the growing number of heartbreaking, courageous pieces such as the one in yesterday’s Washington Post titled: She ‘loved life:’ A grieving father wrote openly about suicide and mental illness in daughter’s obituary.
It seems that hardly a week passes these days without a similar story. And no wonder, when you consider the number of Americans fighting through these baffling conditions. While each piece has troubling similarities that can leave us less than hopeful, they are critical to helping end the stigma of mental illness.
So many parents pray daily that they can just get their children, who are valiantly battling mental illnesses, through their 20s. There’s a lot of research that supports the fact that that decade is the most deadly for those diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.
Stories such as the one told in The Post by Ed Shoener about his amazing daughter, Katie, are hard to read. And it’s important to remember the stories about mental illness that don’t have tragic endings.
I’m highlighting the Shoener family’s story because it contains a simple and refreshingly commensensical bit of advice when it comes to the tools in each of our“mental health first aid kits.” Here’s how Ed Shoener explained it in Katie’s obituary:
Kathleen ‘Katie’ Marie Shoener, 29, fought bipolar disorder since 2005, but she finally lost the battle on Wednesday to suicide in Lewis Center, Ohio.
So often people who have a mental illness are known as their illness. People say that “she is bipolar” or “he is schizophrenic.” Over the coming days as you talk to people about this, please do not use that phrase.
People who have cancer are not cancer, those with diabetes are not diabetes. Katie was not bipolar — she had an illness called bipolar disorder — Katie herself was a beautiful child of God.
The way we talk about people and their illnesses affects the people themselves and how we treat the illness. In the case of mental illness there is so much fear, ignorance and hurtful attitudes that the people who suffer from mental illness needlessly suffer further. Our society does not provide the resources that are needed to adequately understand and treat mental illness.
In Katie’s case, she had the best medical care available, she always took the cocktail of medicines that she was prescribed and she did her best to be healthy and manage this illness — and yet — that was not enough.
Someday a cure will be found, but until then, we need to support and be compassionate to those with mental illness, every bit as much as we support those who suffer from cancer, heart disease or any other illness. Please know that Katie was a sweet, wonderful person that loved life, the people around her — and Jesus Christ.
Despite the fact that mental illnesses have touched my own family, I’ve been guilty of using that “labeling language.” Indeed, it’s a little thing, but if we all quit doing it, and we’re careful to characterize mental illnesses as a disease a person is fighting, over time that would help bust the mental health stigma.
It’s bad enough that we use that “he’s schizophrenic” line with people we know or know of, but perhaps even worse that we are so quick to use that line on the homeless and panhandlers among us. Somehow, writing them off as a mental illness diagnosis allows us to ignore their humanity and our responsibility to them as fellow citizens.
We are all so familiar with the arduous journey of cancer patients, of Alzheimer’s sufferers, of stroke survivors. But whereas we are likely to furiously try to come to the aid of someone suffering a heart attack on a street corner, we’re likely to turn around and walk — fast — the other way when someone is standing in traffic talking to voices invisible to us.
It’s tough stuff, dealing with a mental illness. And if you think it’s a rough road for those around the diagnosed person, that’s a walk in the park compared with living with, say, bipolar disorder, yourself. The Shoener story sheds light on this messy reality.
Thank goodness for quality resources that exist in North Texas. Thank goodness for all the research underway. And thank goodness for brave people like the Shoener family, including Katie herself, who remind us of what this battle looks like, even under the best of conditions.