Time to come to grips with illnesses of the mind

Dorothy Dobbie Issues in the News
Dorothy Dobbie
Issues in the News

Today we learned that the body of Lisa Gibson has been found floating in the Red River near Waterfront Drive. It’s a sobering thought as I sit here amidst my glowing flowers, music playing softly in the background. My heart goes out to the family of this poor young women, who was driven to a desperate and unthinkable act by the chemical demons that attacked her brain after the birth of her son.

She had help – a supportive family, medical assistance – and still nothing worked. Something drove her to destroy the life she had created and then take her own. There is no one to blame, nobody to point fingers at. It is a tragedy that our community is struggling to accept. We are immersed in sadness for her and for her family.

A few aren’t so lucky

Mental illness affects us all. It's time to address the issue.
Mental illness affects us all. It’s time to address the issue.

When this paper hits the streets it will be just past the dog days of summer, and into the first week of August. It’s summer in Winnipeg, the time we wait for and plan for all year long. How lucky we are to live in this beautiful place where everyone has the opportunity to get enough to eat and clothes to wear and a roof over our heads – well, almost everyone.

In the midst of our happiness and contentment, a tragedy such as that of the Gibson family’s brings home the reality of the thousands suffering from some sort of mental illness, the disease that takes control of life and eats away the will; that turns hope to ashes, kills courage and destroys all joy.

For these folks, the goodness of life has been sucked away, and not just from the sufferers but from those they love and who once loved them. Mental illness is a greedy evil, plaguing not just the victim, but the family and friends of the ill, who live in a state of constant fear and anxiety, but worse, with a sense of hopelessness. How to protect? How to help? How to prevent? They blame themselves when nothing works, often thinking that if only they had done more, done differently, been more vigilant, that somehow this latest incident could have been averted.

And the sufferer, too, when he is lucid, often blames himself.

Normal life eludes them

How then can we turn our backs on the homeless person begging on the street corner? Chances are he or she suffers a mental illness of some sort – varying in degree from just being unable to cope to battling compelling delusions that keep them terrorized and cowering from life. Many have schizophrenia or struggle with bi-polar disorder. They live on the street because they are without community or family support, perhaps turned out of their former nurturing lives by relatives and friends and employers acting in self-defence. Sometimes their disease is controllable with medication and constant support. Sometimes it is even temporary (but no less devastating) as in post-partum psychosis, but very often it is a lifetime affliction. For many of these folks normal life is impossible

Nor does mental illness strike only the poor. Who among us has not encountered mental illness among our friends and family? Nor does it always manifest as a mental disease. Often the symptoms are physically debilitating, causing real pain that can put people in wheelchairs or confine them to their homes with vague but nonetheless real affliction.

Many try to cope through self-medication, taking a variety of drugs, from alcohol to marijuana to the so-called hard drugs such as cocaine, morphine or heroine. Some ease their pain with addictive prescription drugs prescribed by well-meaning but helpless doctors who have no more answers than we do.

We spend billions on cancer research, heart disease, diabetes, arthritis – you name it, but very little, in comparison, on research into what make our brains tick. From what I have read, the anti-psychotic drugs we now administer are like taking a sledge-hammer to a fly and just about as effective. Once in a while, we accidentally get it right, prescribing a course of treatment that actually hits the target, but more often we see the physician trying this, then trying that in a hit-and-miss approach that is all he has in his arsenal.

Facing up to the challenge

All this is to say, dear readers, that it is time to bring mental illness into the spotlight. The first tentative step has been taken with the campaign to begin talking about it more openly, to remove the stigma and to deal with it as we would any other illness. A hard inward look is probably also in order to remove any sense of smugness we may feel about our own safe and secure lives.

This hormonal/chemical imbalance is something we should be able to come to grips with, but success will need all our support and commitment. Just keep the Gibson family in mind and heart and making that commitment will be a lot easier.

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