And for people like the first responders and military personnel, who go into harm’s way routinely as part of their job, there would be preventative and decompression treatments routinely administered, rather than waiting to see who develops symptoms and has to overcome the embarrassment of speaking up and seeking help.
People who are abusing substances would be encouraged and supported, rather than blamed and shamed, to seek detox, rehab, and maintenance treatment before intractable addictions developed.
And one in four women expecting babies would not have to risk experiencing a pre- or post-partum mental condition, but would routinely be treated as part of their pre- and post-natal care and so that they wouldn’t have to potentially endure symptoms, potentially harm themselves, or even, God forbid, infanticide.
And children who have learning disabilities or attentional problems would be identified early in their educational course. And they would not just have remedial education, they would have cognitive training, emotional support so they didn’t become so frustrated at their failure in school that they resorted to anti-social behavior and potentially ended up in prison.
Now, you might be thinking to yourself, “Okay, that sounds good. How much is this going to cost? Can we afford to do all this?”
Well, the reality is that health economists have found that providing this kind of proactive mental healthcare would actually reduce the cost of delivering healthcare and result in enormous savings.
In addition, the families of people with mental illness would be relieved of tremendous emotional stress and also financial burden. We would also have the benefit from the fact that many of the glaring social problems that roil our society would be reduced or eliminated, and I’m speaking here particularly about the mass violent incidents that have increasingly occurred.
Too many of these incidents have been perpetrated by young males, largely, who are mentally ill and manifest their symptoms long before they committed their crime. They acted strangely. They were in emotional distress. They were socially isolated. But nobody reached out to them for help.
Instead, they were shunned, ridiculed, or feared. In some cases, families, friends do reach out to try and get their family members or friends help.
Take the case of Gus Deeds, 24-year-old man with bipolar disorder. His father, Virginia State Senator Creigh Deeds, desperately sought to have his son, who was in the throes of a psychotic episode, hospitalized. But to no avail.
Subsequently, Gus viciously attacked his father and then killed himself. So Senator Deeds is now left with scars on his face and pain in his heart, instead of his son.
So how can we stop the suffering, the violence, the stigma? We have to begin by recognizing mental illness for what it is, a medical condition that can be treated, like we do physical illness.
If you look around you and you saw somebody next to you who was grimacing in pain or passing out or choking, you would rush up to them or you would ask them, “Is there something wrong, or can I help you?”
But we don’t do this when we see somebody who’s emotionally distressed or acting strangely, or too often intoxicated. But that’s what we need to do. We need to be involved, show our concern, don’t be afraid to ask, make it your business.
What’s the worst that can happen? They say to you indignantly, “Mind your own business”? Or “I’m fine, thank you”?
But the best that can happen is you may be able to get somebody help and alleviate unnecessary suffering and potentially harm to themselves or others.
Now, that will work for those around us, that are close to us, or that we’re with, but to have an effect on the whole population, we need to influence the government and the media, either individually or through advocacy groups.
We have to make them understand that mental illnesses are real medical conditions and that we have effective treatments and these must be made available to people.
I’ve been trying to do this by speaking out publicly, including to audiences like you, and writing articles for the lay public and the media.
When Robin Williams died, I wrote an article about suicide, and I received an email in response that was titled, “Message from a patient from very long ago,” and I’d like to share this with you.
Dear Dr. Lieberman,
Last night I read your article about the suicide of Robin Williams and recognized your name. You probably don’t remember me, but between the ages of 15 and 30, I was severely mentally ill with borderline personality disorder and depression. I made many suicide attempts and was frequently hospitalized.
One of those times I took a large overdose and awoke in the intensive care unit of St. Vincent’s Hospital. You were assigned to be my doctor, and I clearly remember how very much you helped me. You probably didn’t see it that way, as I know I gave you a really hard time with my acting out and self-destructive behavior.
However, eventually, with a lot of treatment, I was able to get myself together. I got married, enrolled in nursing school, and graduated as valedictorian. For the past 22 years I’ve worked in psychiatric hospitals. When I look back at just how mentally ill I was early in my life, I would never have thought it could turn out so well, how very fortunate I feel to have a pretty happy life.
And so I just had to let you know. What I remember most from when I was your patient is that you genuinely seemed to care about me and didn’t judge me. But I suppose the best doctors are always the ones with the most heart.
So this was the same Laurie that I treated and feared for so long ago. I was thrilled to know that she had recovered and to think that maybe I played some small part in this.
But what really struck me most about her email was the fact that it wasn’t my medical knowledge or my clinical skills that she keenly remembered. It was the fact that I showed compassion for her, and compassion is something that we all can show to people, including those with mental illness.