The world is starting to talk about mental health, which is good, but these discussions are often fraught with bias and judgment. I have never studied mental health and I confess myself a complete novice, but I’m starting to wonder if we’re approaching it the wrong way around.
Every time there is a mass shooting, the suspect is described as suffering from mental illness. While this may be true sometimes, I think it does horrible damage to public understanding of what mental illness is, what treatment consists of, and how common it is.
The National Institute of Mental Health reports that one in four Americans experiences some type of mental disorder in a given year. That’s a quarter of the U.S. population. The World Health Organization estimates that by 2020, Major Depressive Disorder will be the number one reason for disability among women and children worldwide.
Despite the prevalence of mental illness, people are terrified of it. The National Alliance on Mental Illness makes the very good argument that “stigma erodes confidence that mental disorders are real, treatable health conditions. We have allowed stigma and a now unwarranted sense of hopelessness to erect attitudinal, structural and financial barriers to effective treatment and recovery.” This is a problem because early detection and treatment can make all the difference. Years of struggling alone can have terrible consequences, not just for the person affected, but for their family and community as well.
Take the example of my grandmother. She’s 93 and lives by herself in a small town in Mississippi. She cries a lot about being alone. She falls sometimes. She calls the police and the paramedics on a regular basis. She tells anyone who will listen that she’s been abandoned there by her family.
Of course, this is not the whole story. We have tried more than hundred times to move her closer to my parents in L.A. I have personally begged her to move, offering to cover all the expense to get her to relocate to a community with 24/7 staff. Her reasons for staying have ranged from needing to be close to “her kin” (all of whom have passed away) or not wanting to leave her new washing machine. (When I offered to move her washing machine too, suddenly it was the couch that she couldn’t leave behind.)
She makes friends with younger people who bring her meals and help her with errands, until she decides that they’re all stealing from her and threatens to have them arrested (none of them were stealing). For a period of about six months, she heard someone knocking on the side of her house all night long. She called the cops repeatedly. There was no one there.
This sounds like a typical story of an elderly woman losing her mind, but the truth is, she’s always been this way. I won’t go into details, but some of the things she does now pale in comparison to her behavior when my father was young.
My grandmother and I were never close. Partially it was because she was far away, but mainly it was because she never seemed particularly thrilled about someone else taking up my father’s time. I have also come to understand as an adult that her concept of family is firmly rooted in blood ties. I am adopted, so you can imagine where that puts me.
A couple weeks ago, I called her to wish her a happy birthday and she informed me, laughing, that she loves me, she just doesn’t like me. I was shaking with righteous contempt when she hung up on me. I informed my parents that I was done, no more efforts on her behalf. “I just don’t have the emotional capital to spend on her,” I said, and I meant it. Although I’ve never counted on her for much love, her abuse still stings.
It’s easy to slip into self-pity. I had an incredibly advantageous upbringing with tons of people who loved and supported me, so this is the one sob story I’ve got. But my decision to cut ties with her still feels really wrong. I want to believe she’s mean, that it’s her choice to treat me the way she does, but I know on some level it’s not. She’s had a lifetime of broken and dysfunctional relationships. Happiness has eluded her. Contentment was never really possible.
In the days that followed the birthday call, I wondered what it must be like for her to have lived such a long life full of people turning away and cutting ties. At this point, I don’t think she’d be willing to seek mental health help, but what if she did? At 93, could she finally find peace and happiness? If she were my age when she was diagnosed, how much suffering would it have saved her? I have forgiven her, but with a diagnosis and treatment, I wonder who else could have forgiven her?
It occurs to me that access to mental health care is not just about human rights, it’s also about women’s rights. Some researchers believe that women suffer from anxiety and depression disorders at twice the rate of men. Without accurate information and clear paths to resources, women of my generation will still be facing the same discrimination as my grandmother when we are in our nineties. I don’t want to see that happen.