Compassion best medicine for mental illness

Columnist shares her personal point of view as support person for family member with mental illness

By Judy McCloskey

My understanding of mental illness is not professional. Indeed, my knowledge of the spectrum of diseases we call mental illness is quite shallow.  My deeper understanding, experience really, is of one particular illness and its effects on an individual, a beloved family member, and myself as her main non-medical support person.

The big three mental illnesses, which the popular media has conditioned us to be either dismissive or fearful of are anxiety/depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

(I use the term “mental illness,” but brain disease or neuro-biological disease would be more accurate. Though very imperfect, it is much clearer than the current euphemism “mental health” found in the lexicon of these illnesses and disorders.)

So, what do I have to say that might shed even a little bit of light on a huge, and growing, often heart-breaking, always challenging health issue (actually many health issues) which effects not only individuals, but everyone and everything in that person’s orbit? What pertinent things can I  speak about from the perspective of what is called, in the mental health care field, “lived experience”?

What I’d like people to know is that if you or someone in your world has a mental illness diagnosis, or a suspected mental illness, it is nobody’s fault.  Neither you nor they caused the disorder.

Mental illness is fairly common. A substantial percentage of people experience occasional and/or pervasive, life-long mental illness.

Mental illness is not a death sentence.  Lots of inspiring success stories, both small and grand, arise from this group of afflicted individuals.

Clearly, however, persons with a mental illness are exposed to increased risks of physical illnesses, health complications and, indeed, increased rates of mortality. And, of course, this most unwanted diagnosis is too often accompanied by social isolation and extreme poverty.

There are resources and help available for you and your loved one if you suspect a mental illness, but there are undeniable gaps, some of them gaping, in both our knowledge and treatment of mental illness.

One of the gaps is evidence-based research around mental illness, but that is beginning to change.  Since the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, there has been a surge of scientific and medical research into the brain’s functioning.

Investigations into the intricate relationships between genetics and brain function or malfunction has begun to uncover new information and increased understanding of possible causes and potential prevention of some mental illnesses.

When you encounter someone behaving obviously ‘oddly,’ pause for just a moment, and say to yourself, as I have learned to do, “There but for the grace of God go I (or a loved one)”.

I sit on Northern Health’s Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Committee (MHAAC), which is composed of clinicians, front line workers, local resource agencies, service providers, family members (like me) and clients (those folks who have a mental illness diagnosis and are actively receiving treatment and/or support).

Over a year ago the committee began to mount an awareness campaign, “Random Acts of Mindfulness,” and I volunteered to be involved.  This column is part of that involvement, and it became a personal challenge.

Each time I thought I had a handle on what I wanted to write, my thinking got jumbled and confused.  Like everyone, some myths about mental illness were lurking in my brain.

I had a tangle of  dislocated facts, statistics, anecdotes, personal stories, warnings, encouragements, ideas, hopes, resources, etc.  This column is what emerged from that tangle, with a single addition:

Compassion and understanding are among the best medicines for anyone with a mental illness. Come to think of it, aren’t compassion and understanding among the best medicines for all kinds of human choices and challenges?

Terrace resident Judy McCloskey is a retired Northwest Community College instructor, a member of the Northern Health Authority’s Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Committee and sits on the board of the Terrace Art Gallery.