Sunday, August 17, 2014

Death of Robin Williams Opportunity to Focus on Mental Illness

Hearing about the death of a famous person like Robin Williams brings up an issue many people would rather dismiss.  Mental illness. When a wealthy, talented man with access to the best doctors and the best care is so depressed he hangs himself, imagine the plight of those who have limited or no access to mental health services.
Think about it. A man with connections, fame and a long list of family, friends, and fans could not escape the darkness of depression. While some laugh about people seeing a "shrink" and doubters claim mental illnesses don't exist, it causes suffering as authentic as physical injuries.  

Something good is slowly happening as a result of Williams' tragic experience. More advocates are exposing the urgent need to improve services for mental illness.  Those in charge of providing funds for the mentally ill living in poverty need to look at the human suffering caused by government decisions to reduce the budget and cut services.  Politicians need to start doing what's right to relieve the suffering of with mental illnesses instead of doing what's cheapest. Ignoring unnecessary suffering is inhumane. 
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                                                                        Overlooking Commitment to Mentally Ill Veterans

As a comedienne Robin Williams entertained the American troops on USO tours in 13 different countries.  As a philanthropist his contributions aided soldiers needing help with the hidden wounds of war.  Williams said he was humbled by the troops and what they experienced. 

Since his death the US Army has released footage of Williams entertaining the troops.  Lt. Col. Arnold Strong said Williams connected with the troops through his comedy but many identify with his struggle with depression.

He said many veterans understand what Williams experienced. "Depression doesn't discriminate. It targets the best in us and it also brings out the worst in us," Strong said.

William's connection with veterans suffering from mental health issues, combined with his own personal struggle, should draw attention to veterans living with mental illness. The government trains soldier and sends them off to war promising benefits for their family and support when they return. As too many veteran are discovering, politicians would rather play political games and stay loyal to their party while turning their backs on soldiers deserving to be honored. Instead, they are ignored. Congress keeps veteran's bills from passing just to one up a political adversary. It's a sad statement about the greatest country in the world. We can afford to spend $3 trillion in wars but there is nothing left to take care of those sacrificing the most.
More than 20 veterans commit suicide each day. The majority either cannot get help or the help is ineffective. Instead of treating the men and women who risk their lives for us and giving them promised benefits, politicians play their games while vets wait for months for an appointment.

Here's one example: A soldier returned from combat in Afghanistan struggling to fit in. He suffered with nightmares and post traumatic stress. A buddy finally convinced him to go to the Veteran's Administration to get help. He walked into the building, went to psychiatry and explained his situation.  He walked out of the building, went to a nearby park and shot himself.  His appointment was in 3 weeks. Politicians gladly snatch up young people - especially those without jobs or living in poverty, to ship them over and do our dirty work. Then, after seeing and doing unimaginable traumatic deeds, he comes home, but the VA is done with him. He's no longer useful.
M                                                                                   any veterans return from war broken in need of help.  Yet, soldiers willing to die for our country return home to find the government was more interested in sending them to war than helping them deal with the consequences of war.  Left untreated, many veterans struggling with depression, post-traumatic stress and related illnesses struggled with broken relationships, unemployment, alcoholism or drug use, discovered government services were inadequate or nonexistent.  
Our country is shamefully negligent in serving the mentally ill.  The National Coalition for the Homeless estimates over half of all homeless people suffer from mental illness.  About the same percentage of the homeless are veterans.  The US Department of Veteran's Affairs found that homeless veterans fought in several different wars but 47% served in Viet Nam. The Coalition study results show that 45% of homeless veterans suffer from untreated mental illness. There is no excuse for the government ignoring veterans in need of mental health services.

We Need to See It to Believe It

It seems easier to empathize with visible ailments. When patients recover from broken bones or suffer extensive burns, their pain is obvious.  That doesn't mean hidden pain is any less hurtful.  Back in the old days family members advised depressed relatives to Suck it up or Get over it. It's not that easy. It is not a choice.  Much like diabetes or asthma, depression is invisible taking over your body without your permission.

One Patient's Story of Depression
(as told by Deb M)

As a long-time patient of depression, my illness has surfaced in different ways.  I've stayed in the house for weeks at a time spending most of those days in bed staring at the walls or walking around in a lethargic daze with no purpose.  When I already feel worthless with no sense of purpose and feel like I'm completely lost in my own life, wasting more days just makes it all worse.

                                                       Following are some of Deb's dark stories (told in first person)

Depression settles over me like a dark veil; it's so heavy I can't breathe, so dark I can't see through it, and somehow it won't come off- even if I try to peel it away.  It's suffocating me. If I could tear it off I'd feel naked and exposed. I should close my eyes and go to sleep and maybe no one will look.
I can't find anything to cover my body.  Friends walk by laughing and pointing and teasing me carrying their piles of blankets.  I close my eyes and wonder if this is how victims felt when they were locked in the stocks at Salem. They were trapped.  

Humiliation gives in to scorching pain radiating from my white hot desert sand bed.  My dry lips are stuck shut like a broken zipper, my tongue seems too big to fit, and I feel like I am going to choke to death. Then I see the hazy outline of a person standing above me.  I feel relieved thinking about tasting water and no longer burning in the sun.
The voice sounds familiar. Someone I've always trusted. Someone in my life.  Another gruff but jovial voice helps lift my burnt ugly body out of the hotness.  The scorching sun and swirling sand won't let my eyes see who is helping me. Just blurry outlines with voices. 

Wild laughter breaks through my daze.  I feel liquid dribbling on my bleeding lips.  I choke on the vile taste of urine. Then terror takes over. I know it's the same nasty man.

When the rough hands let go of my throbbing wrists I feel like I am falling through air. I close my eyes hoping to disappear or instantly sleep- like the sleep after taking too many sleeping pills. Then when I wake up, no one can hurt me. I'll be safe.
  
When I make my eyes open my body turns into heavy stone. I never ever needed help so much, ever. The hissing noise slithering over my arm makes me squeeze my eyes tight.  I just keep thinking 'this isn’t real'. I squeeze my eyes tighter, trying to make my mind go away.  
When a burning sting breaks through the side of my neck, my eyes squint open as the burning gets hotter like a drill-a screwdriver digging into my scorched neck.  In that second I glimpse several shapes huddled around the top of the pit. A familiar voice asks if I can talk. But, my lips cannot open. My head cannot move.  That's when I know they won't quit. As long as I suffer they won't quit.

 I think the woman's voice says, "Here. This should help you!" I hear more squeals and laughter. Then she tips over a big box, shaking it as its terrified cargo hisses in the air. As each snake splats on top of me, I try to reach up. I try to say, 'Help!'  Then the voices of my fake friends drift further away.  In a second of courage I concentrate on making my legs or arms move.  I want it to be over . . .
That's the short version of a familiar nightmare. That's part of the reason I don't go to sleep.  I am afraid of the stories from the past leaking from my brain.  Versions of the same snake nightmare happened four times. Each time a family member has died the next day.  Sometimes I wonder what kind of demon controls me. Or does the evil live inside me and comes out when I am afraid? Sometimes I can't tell if I'm in the dream or in the world. 

                                                                                     Depression Looks Different for Each Person

The consequences and treatment for depression are not the same for everyone.  And, some victims of depression can hide it well. They are good actors.  It isn't that uncommon to have friends and family unaware of the disease.  Symptoms can be similar. A few are common.

I often start weeping for no apparent reason.  Watching TV, driving or doing laundry, there's no way to predict the onset of a crying jag.  It feels like a little despair, a little emptiness, a little sadness all wrapped up and covered in a sense of doom.  Then when it's over, nothing has changed.  There's no sense of resolution, no relief-just more of existing without a purpose.
Another piece of depression is lack of joy. There is no joy in activities that were once enjoyable.  Camping, boating, ball games, fairs-all kind of 'things' I  liked to do, no longer motivate me enough to leave the house.  Then, the few things remotely enjoyable aren't possible because of money.  My funds don't support travel, concerts, theater, shopping, or a good bottle of wine for that matter.
So, I do soak up a pity party on occasion.  Karma has returned to bite my ass. Not sure why.  But, I worked my whole life to end up with buckets of time.  Time to stare at the ceiling. To go to sleep crying. To wake up in tears.
When I have a minute or two of inspiration, I can start a project but it never gets finished. Even a simple household task, watching a movie or reading a book, I don't allow myself to move out of the chair except to use the bathroom.
I have big problems with concentration and memory.  I make appointments and don't go to them.  Partly because I don't care. Partly because I don't have the energy to change clothes.  I go for days with one or two hours of sleep and then sleep for 24 hours. If I fall asleep for a 'normal' amount of time I have familiar nightmares. The kind where you wake up and think it's real. And scream. During nightmares I often yell and kick and talk and wake up crying and scared.

Getting cleaned up takes too much energy.  Greasy hair or smelling underpants doesn't bother me. I have no shower Sundays that stretch into five days without bathing. It's no big deal.  When I am miserable, I feel like I deserve suffering.  I feel guilt but I'm not sure why. Except I know any problem, illness or difficult time for my children is my fault. I think about 'what ifs' and imagine different endings. 
                                                                                                       Stand Up and Make a Difference

Statistics on depression suggests over 120 million people worldwide suffer from a form of depression. It (the ones we know about) causes over 850,000 deaths a year.  Statistics show more patients need treatment due to this serious disease.  Due to political choices, necessary services for depression and other mental illness are being cut while the numbers of those in need continue to increase.

Cutting away the social safety net by reducing money for basic services has a ripple effect throughout society.  Unfortunately, it often takes an overwhelming tragedy to remind citizens of the desperate need for mental health funds.  When Gabby Gifford was shot by a mentally ill person, people took notice.  Society is shocked when children die at the hands of mentally ill shooters. Without needed treatment, dangerous mentally ill patients end up homeless living on the streets.
Most forms of depression can be treated with therapy, drugs or a combination.  Chronic depression often requires more extensive treatment.  The following statistics from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show the extent of depression in our society.
  • Nearly 10% of the population experiences depression in some form
  • Those with chronic depression (major depressive order) is about 3%
  • Chronic depression is the leading cause of disability for the 15-44 age group
  • Over 15% of people  with depression commit suicide
  • Undetected depression among alcohol and drug users is estimated to be 30%
  • Restricting mental health services overloads emergency rooms and jails.

There are many ways Americans can advocate for better mental health services.  You can become a member of the National Institute of Mental Health (nimh) to be an advocate. Click here for more information. Write or call your Congressmen requesting funds for basic mental health services. Share info on social media and with personal contacts.
Donate or volunteer to groups helping veterans with mental health disorders.  Share your story and get involved.  Most importantly,  help keep the topic in the spotlight.  Society needs to realize the consequences of mental illness.  It shouldn't require a national tragedy to recognize basic needs of the mentally ill.