Mrs. Jane Doe turned the shopping cart into the next aisle and almost ran smack into Frances Neighbor. They smiled and began to talk. After awhile, Frances said, “Did you hear about poor Marty Finch? You know, Margo's son.” Jane shook her head. “He had this awful epileptic seizure at the high school – right in the hallway between classes. He's in the hospital now, trying to get his medication right.”
“Oh! How awful! The poor kid! And poor Margo!” said Jane.
“Yes. I saw Margo last night, brought her over some dinner. She's worried sick.”
Jane shook her head with sympathy and concern. “You know, I'm making a chicken casserole tonight. I'll bring her some.”
Okay. Now that you've read this rather poorly written grocery store scene, let's re-write it and change it up a bit:
Mrs. Jane Doe turned the shopping cart into the next aisle and almost ran smack into Frances Neighbor. They smiled and began to talk. After awhile, Frances said, “Did you hear about Marty Finch? You know, Margo's son.” Jane shook her head. “He had this awful fit at the high school. He went totally berserk. Scared the other kids to death!” She made a face and shook her head. “I guess he's over in St. Mary's Psych ward.”
Jane pursed her lips and whispered, “You know, I heard they were having trouble with him.”
“Schizophrenia!” Francis whispered. “That's what I heard!”
Jane shuddered. “That's so scary. Right in our own school.”
Maybe I've exaggerated this a bit, but I think you get my point. In both scenes, Marty Finch is very ill. He needs hospitalization and medication management. In both scenes he's depicted as having a serious neurological brain disease. The difference is in the attitude and understanding of the women. When Margo Finch's son is ill with epilepsy(an understood accepted disease), she gets casseroles. When he is sick with a mental illness, Margo and her son receive no empathy, little compassion; and Margo is forced to prepare her own dinner.
This is what May is Mental Health Month is all about. There is still an archaic belief that mental illness is not organically based, that it is something that can be fixed, if only the individual were a better, stronger human being – if he'd been raised better or tried harder or just didn't get so freaked out about everything.
“You know Uncle George wouldn't have that diabetes if he just tried a little harder. It's all those cookies Aunt Martha was always feeding him!”
Well maybe those cookies weren't so good for him, but they didn't cause his diabetes. Diabetes is a complicated, genetic, organically based disease that Uncle George did not cause and can not wish away. He can only control it with medication, diet and lifestyle.
It's time to understand mental illness as we understand epilepsy, diabetes, glaucoma, multiple sclerosis and countless other diseases. Accepting that we don't really know what causes them and that we can't, at this time, cure them, but we can treat individuals unlucky enough to have developed these conditions. We can treat them with the medications and medical resources that are available; and also, and foremost, we can treat them, and their loved ones, with the respect, empathy and compassion they deserve.