Bring Mental Illness Out of the Closet

What is mental illness? “Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in thinking, emotion or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” ( This definition is what the American Psychiatric Association declares.

But mental illness has yet to gain full acceptance among the general population and, of course, insurance companies. People fear going to see a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker because to the stigma attached. That is the thinking, but it is incorrect, and I will speak on it a bit later.

I suffered from depression for most of my childhood and adult life. Several times I had to be hospitalized because of it. This, of course, allows me insight into the disease. I venture to say that every person on earth has at one time or another suffered from mental illness. Many have not recognized it as such because they fully recovered in reasonable time.

When the words “mental illness” are proffered, people tend to go to the extreme and think the suffering person likely is schizophrenic or psychotic. But in truth, most mental illnesses are a much more benign form. Chief among these is depression. I think everyone struggles with a bout of depression at some point in their life, sometimes caused by death of a parent or friend, extraordinary stress in the work environment, or financial problems. These sorts of depression can be easily dealt with by short term therapy. And many times, without the necessity of medication.
But when depression causes a person to stop doing normal things for a long term, months, it is likely that the person will need a heavy dose of psycho-therapy combined with medication. Such depressions present in women after birth, post-partum depression, after the death of a child, after rape, incest, attack on the person’s life and so forth. And as funny as it may sound to hear, these depressions are rather normal reactions to traumas. Be assured, the road to recovery from these situations varies but is quite frequently long-term.

Then there are two psychiatric illness which most of the public fails to recognize as such: alcoholism and drug addiction. These diseases, however, are the outward manifestation of more serious illnesses. People frequently use alcohol to get rid of the fear they have when entering either a very stressful situation or a social situation. Alcohol does the job, quite well too. And since it works, the person uses it more and more both for the original reasons and then for other reasons their mind says that alcohol would be useful. This is generally referred to as self-medication. The problem, of course, it that the individual is failing to deal with the root problem. And by not dealing with those problems they, like most other illnesses, only get worse and require more “medication.” The person finally gets to the point when he is using alcohol daily because it makes him feel good, until is doesn’t. The, “until is doesn’t” happens when the person gets fired from a job, loses a spouse, becomes overwhelmingly in debt, and many other situations. It is basically the same for the drug addict.

It is important to recognize that these are not bad people who need to get good but are sick people who need to get well. But where? A person is declared in need of a detox but when the advocate, usually the person’s physician, calls around looking for a bed is such a facility they find there are no beds to be had. There, of course, are the detoxes where a person has to pay but most people cannot afford the out of pocket expense.
Alcoholics and addicts need a minimum of 90 days in a detox, but most detoxes push these people out after two weeks. Some, state run facilities, allow for longer stays. At the heart of these problems is the insurance companies which refuse to pay for more than a 2 week stay. The likelihood of a person staying clean and sober after a two-week stay is near zero.

There is a common theme here. Every one of the various types of mental illnesses I have brought up, the person involved has a feeling of not being worthy, feeling useless, of having something deep within themselves which feels so horrible that they feel shameful and cannot find it within themselves to share their deep dark secrets. And in the end, it is one of these deep dark secrets, their demons, that turns the person either suicidal or alcohol and/or drug dependent.

The bottom line is that we are doing a horrible job in helping these people. We must remove the stigmatism attached to mental illness. We must get all insurance companies to treat mental illness the same way they would treat any other illness. We must insure that there are sufficient facilities to deal with those who sick and suffering.


Florida’s New Welfare Law Disregards Simple Human Decency

For probably four thousand years, people have had to deal with addiction. Drug addiction and alcoholism are two of the most misunderstood issues in today’s society. And until the late 1930s people probably had good reason to believe those issues were of a moral nature. Then a man named William Wilson and his friend, Dr. Robert Silkworth, took a different view of the issue. Dr. Bob, as he was known, defined alcoholism, and by default addiction, as a medical issue and not a moral issue.

The start of both alcoholism and addiction is a matter of choice. But there is a marked difference between the alcoholic to be and others in taking their first drink. The alcoholic to be uses a drink as one would take aspirin for a headache, to him it is medication. The same is true for the addict to be. And this means that there is far more to this disease than meets the eye. It means that absent an historical view of the individual, it is easy to lay blame at the feet of the alcoholic or addict. But that is simply not the case.

Alcoholics and addicts share common traits: past traumas, untreated psychological issues, and sometimes other medical issues. Taking the last first, it is not uncommon for a person who is prescribed one of the opioid medications to become addicted through long-term use. This means that once the physical necessity has passed a psychological necessity kicks in. Where a well-grounded person will overcome this short-term addiction, the psychologically damaged person will not even try. Or if he does try, will give into temptation.

One of the most common expressions in use in our society today is: “After that, I need a drink!” Or, “If you had to put up with that, you’d need a drink too.” The simple fact is, there has never lived the person who truly “needed a drink.” What such people are seeking is an escape. Most of those people will not become alcoholics but some will. But our society does not challenge the idea of a drink of alcohol as ever being a necessity.

For the most part, alcoholism and drug addiction starts at a young age. In meetings of alcoholics anonymous the story of getting drunk in the early teen years is quite common. But even though nationally the drinking age is 21, underage drinking is not only common but accepted. That being true, the fault lies in our society’s mores. With society allowing teens to have parties with alcohol, they are not considering that the use of drugs in such parties becomes quite possible. It is well-known that alcohol and drug addiction usually starts at a young age. This means as a society, we can do something about it by become vigilant and not turning our heads to underage drinking.

Medical research has shown that the brain is not fully formed in females until about their 21st birthday and for males it is even later. Research at the University of Rochester suggests that full development for everyone is about the 25th year. (

It is also well documented that the use of alcohol and drugs retards the growth of the brain as-well-as a person’s psychological growth. Sadly, the incident of alcoholism and drug addiction by age 25 is extremely high relative to other age groups after the 25th year. But this same research has shown that the person who becomes the alcoholic or addict has his ability to choose against drinking or drugging taken away. Alcohol and drug use has gone from choice to necessity. This, by definition, puts it into the category of a medical disease.

This all brings me to the law the state of Florida just passed requiring drug screening of welfare applicants. If a person tests positive for a banned substance, they are denied access to welfare. The problem with this approach is that is simply exacerbates the situation. It seems the rationale behind such a law is to curb the use of illegal drugs by welfare applicants. But that of course ignores the fact that these are sick people who need to get well and not bad people who need to become good.

It is time we all become “our brother’s keeper.” I mean that in the sense that we as a society must become responsible for all those suffering from alcoholism, drug addiction and all forms of mental disease and disorder. A disease of the mind is difficult to both understand and treat but it is none the less a disease just as getting the flu, cancer, or malaria is. We do not stigmatize, for the most part, people who contract diseases in the rest of the body, why must we continue to stigmatize those with diseases centered in the brain?

It Isn’t Easy Being Human

I remember when I was a college freshman, a professor asked the question, “what makes us human?”  He was asking us to answer what separates us from any other animal on the face of the earth.  I do not know the answer he gave, but I know the answer to be our ability to make a weighted and thoughtful decision.  No other animal, when faced with something, stops to consider its options.  All animals, except human, act purely on instinct.  Animals cannot make decisions as humans do.  They draw entirely on experience, Pavlovian, and instinct.  Animals also always exist entirely in the moment.  A German Shepard does not distinguish between his own breed and any other.  All he sees is another dog.  We humans should be so blessed.  It would certain make for a lot less animosity.

But the single thing that separates us most of all from all other animals is the fact that we have the knowledge that one day we will die.  No other animal, without exception, has any concept of mortality.  They never consider what things will be like next year.  They are entirely involved with living today, and assuring their continued survival but without regard to death.

We, as human beings, make hundreds of judgement decisions every day.  Sometimes we fail and we recognize that we have failed.  The concept of failure is not in an animal’s mind.  Animals do not think that they failed, they are already moving on to their next plan that will fulfill their need.  We humans would do well to take that approach.  Unfortunately, many us get bogged down with our failures and allow those failure to rule our lives.  We think we are “failures” rather than accept that failure is a simple fact of the entire animal kingdom, and is seldom a moral issue, another thing animals are incapable of, moral judgement.

Regardless of what you may think, no animal now, or ever, has ever been evil.  Evil is an entirely human concept.  Animals kill other animals because they are protecting their young, their territory, or for food.  The mountain lion does not kill the deer because he hates any particular deer.  He kills it for food.  Bears attack humans because they usual perceive us as a threat to their territory.  A polar bear will actually track a human down and kill him, but that is because he sees us as prey, not because he dislikes us.

In the entire animal kingdom, except for humans, survival of the fittest is an absolute law.  We humans, however, do not have to follow that law.  We have the ability to help the “less fit,” those who are weak, sick, mentally deficient, etc.  How much and how well we do that is a matter of choice.  Had other species been able to make such judgements, the woolly mammoth of North America for example, they would still exist today rather than having fallen into extinction.  Because we are capable of understanding we have an immediate obligation to help and to understand our fellow humans.

It was not until the mid to late 20th century that humans had any real understanding of mental health.  And because we are at our hearts animals, we tend to deal from our fears and too often let those fears control our actions.  It is known today that a very large portion of our population, at some point in their life, suffers, even briefly, from some form of mental illness.  Most common, of course, is depression.  There are those who suffer from what is called clinical depression, and who suffer for a long time, if not a life-time.  Then there are schizophrenics, bi-polar, psychotics, who require intense and life-long treatment.  Those people suffer the largest degree of alienation from other humans even though their disease is truly a disease like cancer, chicken pox, polio, or any other disease humans suffer from.  The difference being that diseases of the mind cannot be seen except in their outward manifestations, and that scares us.  We become uncomfortable when we are around such people.  But what we need to remember is our responsibility to them is no less than it is to anyone else, maybe more so.

On any given day we humans are bound to make a goodly number of mistakes in judgement.  Most such mistakes we do not make much of, and are soon forgotten.  Once in a while a mistake rises to something more serious.  When such things happen one of the most foolish things we can do is to dwell on the mistake, and beat ourselves up over it.  The most healthy thing we can do is to apply the appropriate fix and put it in our rearview mirror.  There seems to be something unnatural to humans in doing that, but it is actually the most healthy thing we can do.  If we can learn one very good lesson from the rest of the animal kingdom, we need to learn how to live in the moment.  It is impossible to change history, regardless of how shameful, but as humans we do have the good fortune to not repeat of our mistakes by simply making a mental note of what did not work in the past.  Animals are incapable of such behavior.

It is truly not easy being human, but it is extremely rewarding.  Unlike our animal friend, we know we exist and we can do something about how we exist.  Still, happiness is generally a choice.