Why We Need to View Mental Illness the Way We View a Broken Arm
Our daughter was finally breathing rhythmically, asleep beside me as we lay on the floor of the emergency ward. Several layers of hospital blanket did little to soften the concrete. Vanessa had finally found a merciful exhaustion, after hours of struggling with the panic attacks that had brought her here.
It was Vanessa’s worst episode and her first hospitalization since she was diagnosed three years ago with mental illness — depression, anxiety and mood disorders.
We’d been assigned to the “Psych Interview Room,” possibly the only relatively quiet place in the busy, perennially overcrowded emergency ward at Royal Columbian Hospital in New Westminster, British Columbia. The space was perhaps two closets in size, with chairs but no bed, so the floor was the only option for Vanessa to find rest.
My phone was buzzing — another supposedly urgent email or text about an election campaign that seemed so distant. My voicemail full, soon my phone too would sleep, battery exhausted. It was Oct. 21, less than four weeks from the Nov. 15 election day, yet the race was not on our minds this hour.
With Vanessa asleep, my mind wandered to the times my wife and I had brought her to this emergency ward over her 23 years — the worst was a broken arm from falling off her bike. I contemplated how less-stressful a broken arm is — the X-ray shows everything, treatment is routine and predictable, the prognosis not mired with uncertainty. We laughed with her as we signed her cast. This hospital visit was nothing like that.
Every hour or so, another doctor or nurse would come in to ask new questions, as they tried to determine how Vanessa’s three-year-old diagnosis had culminated in so severe an attack. Before dawn, they sent Vanessa home, as the anxiety crisis had passed. But within hours, we were back, Vanessa’s symptoms even worse. This time, they would admit her to hospital. For the first time (sadly, not the last), Vanessa was “committed” under the Mental Health Act — her stay was now involuntary, though she wasn’t fighting it.
Three years earlier, Vanessa had joined the 1 in 5 Canadians who will suffer from mental illness at some point in their lives.
Following her 2011 diagnosis, Vanessa had responded to treatment. Stabilized, she’d completed some courses at Douglas College (she was now studying psychology) and had begun to work at the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) with troubled teens facing some of the same challenges she’d faced. We had seen her bright smile return. Of course, everyone knows that a diagnosis of mental illness is not something to talk about. It’s something to keep secret, perhaps particularly if your family is in public life.
Eighteen months after her diagnosis, June 2013, Vanessa felt well enough to join her mother and me at Ride Don’t Hide, a CMHA bicycle ride for mental health. A reporter recognized me after the ride and asked about the event. As I was answering, Vanessa stepped out from behind me to speak.
“He’s not telling you everything. He’s here… because of me.”
Thus began the journey. Vanessa had concluded that the only way to end the stigma of mental illness was to talk about it. She hadn’t discussed her decision with her parents, but looking back, we realize that her decision was a turning point in her recovery. Her friends could now understand what she’d been going through. She could talk about it.
And talk about it she did. She blogged, she did interviews, she spoke out about mental illness as though it were just another type of illness (which, of course, it is). She argued that the biggest barrier to effective treatment for those with mental illness was the stigma.
A year later, my wife, Anna Rosa, and I attended Ride Don’t Hide 2014 with her, and she was all smiles. But in the months that followed, the crippling depression came back, and by October, she was struggling anew; by month-end she would be in Sherbrooke Centre, RCH’s psychiatric ward.
November — the last two weeks of the election race — and our family was struggling under enormous and crippling stress that had nothing to do with politics. We learned how hard mental illness can be on any family; I still can’t imagine what this struggle would be like for a patient alone, without family support.
We were learning a new set of acronyms for a spectrum of illnesses and a range of treatment options. We would learn the Sherbrooke Centre rules for “earning” privileges on the ward, like wearing one’s own clothes (instead of hospital pajamas) or getting access to one’s phone. As she stabilized more, Vanessa was granted short leaves to step out onto the streets for sushi with visiting friends.
And we would learn the contrasts — some of the other patients on the ward told us about how some families respond to mental illness, how secrets must be kept. Since her friends knew about her illness, Vanessa was getting visitors; other patients were alone. We would come to lament the way society views this disease.
After three weeks in hospital, Vanessa returned home. Though she suffered some setbacks in the stressful Christmas season, they were not as severe as before, and life settled down for a relatively quiet Christmas break.
Through all this, because of Vanessa’s blogs and interviews about mental illness, we received countless emails, letters and notes, from people we know and from complete strangers. People who describe the struggles a loved one — daughter, son, spouse, parent — has gone through, typically in silence. People who admitted that they themselves have a mental illness they’ve kept hidden for years because of the stigma. Reporters, CEOs, professionals, single moms. Hundreds of people who expressed their thanks to our daughter for speaking up about the stigma, for tackling it head-on.
We want to express our own thanks. Thanks to all who understood. My apologies for the hundreds of emails and congratulatory notes and best wishes to which I/we haven’t been able to respond. They lifted us from unimaginable depths, the most stressful time in the life of our family. Thank you. And thanks especially to Vanessa and her siblings.
I pray that society will one day eliminate the stigma of mental illness, so those who suffer won’t do so alone, so those who need treatment will get it, so employers will understand and accommodate, so families and friends and loved ones will know how to support someone who is simply ill.
A person shouldn’t suffer alone, in silence, for fear of being ostracized. We don’t ostracize someone with a broken arm; we sign her cast.
This column first appeared in the Tri-Cities NOW.
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