Wishful Thinking about Mental Illness

In the wake of the Parkland school shooting, we hear a lot of references to mental illness. But many accounts confuse mental health and personality disorders with serious, crippling mental illness. Because we are unclear about what constitutes serious mental illness and what is some other behavioral issue, our country is conflicted about what and how much to do for whom. So we do very little, and usually too late. I know; my brother suffered from schizophrenia, and I have seen how difficult it is to get care for those who are seriously ill.

D. J. Jaffe, in his book Insane Consequences: How the Mental Health Industry Fails the Mentally Ill, goes through the cold hard facts of America’s mental health disaster in a way everyone interested in public health policy should read. His own sister-in-law suffers from a mental illness, and he has experienced first hand the insane maze of ineffectual systems that our country has amassed in the past 60 or 70 years that do not do what we want them to do. They don’t help us care for our mentally ill brethren the way that science and social programs could be doing it. And every year it gets worse. Mr. Jaffe points out where it is all going wrong and some ways it might be improved. It is an impressive volume of information. He gives us many facts we don’t really want to hear, but need to.

Wishful Thinking

There is an overwhelming desire in the American public to believe that any obstacle can be overcome, that with enough grit and determination, each of us is capable of vanquishing demons. We applaud wounded Iraqi vets and victims of the Boston Marathon pressure cooker bombing as they struggle to manage their new prosthetic legs. We hold up images of the amazing handicapped athletes at the Paralympic Games and say, “See? Anything is possible. You can do anything, no matter what life has thrown your way.”
This wishful thinking fuels the supporters of the NRA to believe that an armed English teacher can fight off a determined mass shooter with an assault rifle. They want to believe that a series of interlocking and complex regulations involving fifty states as well as federal agencies regarding background checks, will combine with vigilant and well funded social workers and local police (whose usual duties involve chasing shoplifters and ticketing speeders) to stop the next angry would-be shooter. Not to mention arming teachers. They want to believe that something can be done that will stop this horrible epidemic of shootings and still allow them to keep easy access to firearms. In reality, even people as mentally ill as my brother are seldom admitted to hospitals except for 48 or 72 hour holds. And people as ill as my brother would likely never have the logical planning ability to plan an attack such as those we’ve seen at schools. In the meantime, people dealing with anger issues or other behavioral issues that seem to drive many of these shooters would seldom be caught by existing background checks.
It is wishful thinking that also fuels the so-called recovery movement in mental health circles, a movement that holds that anyone, even the most severely psychotic individuals afflicted with schizophrenia, can recover, given the right cocktail of medications, special diet, yoga for stress relief, faith in God, and/or the latest computer training program. Close all the psychiatric hospitals, they say. Perhaps hearing voices is simply another way to experience the world. Perhaps people like living in filth under highway overpasses and on subway grates in the dead of winter. They are entitled to live as they want, to have the freedom to follow their own dreams. Most memoirs or other personal narratives I have found about dealing with a mentally ill family member reinforce the recovery/anything is possible belief system. They were stories written about the lucky few who did recover; this is what we all want to believe will happen. Unfortunately, that result is achieved by very few.
We don’t like it when reality does not comply with our dreams.

My Family’s Story

When my brother was released from the New York State Psychiatric Hospital in Wingdale, New York, back in the early 1990’s, I thought the hospital administration had simply made a mistake. I thought that, unlike everyone else the hospital was releasing in the deinstitutionalization effort, my brother was still profoundly ill, too troubled for me to care for him in my home (he alternately thought he was James Bond or a recently scalped Mohican Indian, and had threatened to rape my daughter) yet unable to take care of himself. Surely the authorities would see their error and move him to a facility where he could be cared for humanely. It certainly didn’t need to be an enormous brick Dickensian hospital with bars on the windows—this was the 21st century, not the 19th—but he should not be on his own.
Over the next 20 years, I learned otherwise. Many of the mentally ill people released from hospitals—or, as the years passed, who were never admitted to hospitals—were just as confused and delusional as my brother. Our country had crossed through the looking glass; anyone who should have been helping to reopen appropriate facilities was, instead, reciting platitudes about self-directed care and consumers adhering to medication schedules as if schizophrenia was like having high blood pressure. Take this little pill every day and you will be fine.
Many people do respond to medication, but only if first — they actually get treatment,  and second– also with a great deal of community support. Perhaps 50% of people diagnosed with a serious mental illness can achieve a modicum of recovery this way. But not the rest. And without adequate psychiatric care, hundreds of thousands of Americans are sentenced to a cruel cycle of crashing, ER visits, release, and decline, till returned to the ER – or to jail.

But how do we relate to these cold statistics? Clinicians and researchers can recite statistics and probabilities all they want. The problems families like mine face are personal. It is personal when your brother is released from the hospital and you find him hours later in the bathroom, blood all over the place, trying to cut the radio out of that spot in his head just behind his ear. It is personal when a loved one cannot care for him or herself, and no one will help, and when you fear what they might do next.

So if not quite anything is possible; what should we do?
With knowledge, such as that compiled in Mr. Jaffe’s book, we can approach an approximation of that mythical anything if we build the right mix of that knowledge and humane care into our mental health policies. And the first step in finding the right care is to face the truth about what is possible and how to achieve it. The Iraqi Vet who can walk with her prosthetic leg is happy to have the prosthesis. She knows it is not the same as a real leg, but she is thankful for it. She doesn’t pretend she doesn’t need it. (And no one tells her to just hop.)Care for people with mental illness is like that. With the right mix of medicine and supervision, many more of the people currently suffering might have a much better life. And for the most seriously ill, comfortable supervised long term housing would make their lives much, much better.

Follow up
Mr. Jaffe’s book goes through many of the obstacles and wrong turns and some of the possible avenues of recourse, that can be followed to take better care of the approximately 10 million people in the USA unfortunate enough to be afflicted with serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia or serious bi-polar disorder. So if you want to understand what happened to our mental health system, and what can be done about it, read Jaffe’s Insane Consequences.
For a personal account of my family experience, read my book, Shot in the Head, a Sister’s Memoir, a Brother’s Struggle.
Also consider reading Surviving Schizophrenia, by Dr. Fuller Torre, which is out in a new, up to date edition. It is the bible of knowledge about the American mental health care system.
And/or watch Dr. Stephen B. Seager’s two documentaries:
Shattered Families, the Collapse of the American Mental Health System, and
Roadmap, Making a Mental Health System That Actually Works

Learn more about the health problem afflicting 10 million Americans that no one want to deal with. It will not just go away on its own. And wishing won’t make it go away. We have to face it, with a mix of remedies tailored to the type and severity of illness.


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Katherine Flannery Dering is a writer, feminist, and mental health activist. Her new book, Aftermath, was published in November, 2018.She is also author of Shot in the Head: A Sister’s Memoir, A Brother’s Struggle (Bridgeross Communications; 2014). Her younger brother, Paul, was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 16, and she helped with his care. She writes about caring for her brother in hopes that it will enlighten the public on the role of caregivers. Her website is www.katherineflannerydering.com She is currently at work on two books - a mystery novel, and a nonfiction​ book about women, business and religion. Katherine holds an MFA from Manhattanville College, a BA from Le Moyne College, an MA from the University of Buffalo and a MBA from the University of Minnesota at Duluth. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Inkwell Magazine, as well as The Bedford Record Review, Northwords Press, Sensations Magazine, Pandaloon Press, Poetry Motel, Pink Elephant Magazine, River River, The Manhattanville Review, and Stories from the Couch. Dering taught Spanish briefly and is a former CFO at a community bank in New York. For more information please visit www.katherineflannerydering.com and find Katherine and her book on Facebook and Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Wishful Thinking about Mental Illness”

  1. Hi Katherine, I found your post via DJ Jaffe’s link on FB, and wanted to thank you for so eloquently expressing this hard and painful truth. I also wanted to alert you and others in the mental health community to a new novel titled “Everything Here Is Beautiful”, which takes a 360 degree look at schizophrenia and its ripple effects on family members. It’s published by Viking/Penguin, and has gotten a lot of mainstream attention (USA Today, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, O Magazine, etc). I happen to be its author, and as someone who also has family members with mental illness, my hope is that it introduces the complexities of SMI’s to the general public in an accessible way — in addition to being a compelling family story about the sacrifices we make for the ones we love. More info: http://miratlee.com. All best to you and your loved ones, Mira


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