The wicked problem of mental illness

18 Dec

Yesterday, I blogged mostly about gun control as a possible solution to the ending the mass murders we’re seeing more and more in this country. I also noted that ensuring effective treatment of the mentally ill was another solution that needed to be explored.


I wanted to touch a little more on the mental illness aspect. But, I’m having trouble formulating my thoughts into anything coherent  I’m not as comfortable with this topic. And, that in itself gives me pause.

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m pretty opinionated and not afraid to make those opinions known. I’m sure many of my Facebook friends are glad the presidential election is over and I’ve shut up about politics. So, my uncomfortableness in expressing an opinion on mental illness is weird to me.  I wanted to figure out why I was uneasy.

In doing so, I began to evaluate my own personal experiences with mental illness.  And, I realized I haven’t had much (thankfully?) There’s no one in my immediate family (that I’m aware of anyway) who suffers from mental illness. I don’t have children, so I’ve had little interaction with those who have autism.

About 18 years ago, I worked in a group home for mentally disabled adults, and some of them, in addition to their disabilities, also suffered from mental illness, like mania and bipolarism. I had to restrain a couple who became aggressive a few times, and I had to give them their medicines. But, that was quite a long time ago.

Closer to home and to now, I have an acquaintance with bipolar disorder. This acquaintance actually was a very close friend until about 7 years go, but his illness, or rather his lack of seeking/following treatment for the illness, put a wedge in our friendship that I don’t ever see going away.  I still see him a few times a year, as we have mutual friends and interests. But, I do my best to avoid him. And when I can’t, I’m cordial but distant. For a little while, our mutual friends tried to get us to be friends again, but they seem to have given up, and we don’t talk about it anymore. I can’t say I’m sorry about that.

I’m not going to go into details about what happened, but basically, I do not feel safe around him. What happened happened because he was refusing the treatment for his disease. And, I just cannot trust that will not happen again. And, when he’s not on his meds, I become a target for him. I do not know why. I spent many, many hours trying to figure that out and eventually gave up. He was not physically violent, but I honestly feel like it is a very real possibility that he could be.

It appears that he is doing very well right now, and when I do see him, he seems like his old self. So, his current treatment must be working. But, back when we were friends, he was doing very well and the treatment was working, and he just stopped doing it. And then he lashed out at me in a most unexpected and hurtful way. I always have this fear in the back of my mind that he’s going to just stop taking his meds again, and I’ll be his target again.

So, part of me feels guilty. Part of me knows that if he didn’t have his mental illness, what happened never would have happened. Yet, the other part of me is angry that he did not take responsibility for maintaining his treatment and staying on his meds. He knew full well what he was doing, and even said so.

I also have a cousin who is suicidal. But, it’s kept very quiet. He lives thousands of miles away from me, so I only hear updates from my Mom whenever anything bad happens, like he’s in the hospital again. And, I can’t blame them. Who wants to talk about X’s latest suicide attempt at Christmas dinner?

So, in thinking about those two incidents I realized a common thread: No one is talking about it. With my former friend, the talk with our mutual friends always centered on why I should forgive and forget, never on the fact that he refused to take his meds or maybe that there was a problem with his ability to get his meds which would point to a systemic problem (and may have softened my stance against his refusal to take his meds?)  With my cousin, it’s just that no one is talking about it at all. So, there’s like this unwritten code that mental illness is to be kept hushed, and it becomes uncomfortable when you break that code and start talking about it.

Those are just my personal examples. And, I don’t feel like they’re a drop in the bucket to what others are facing. Like my cousin’s parents, wife, and child who have to directly deal with his suicide attempts. Or like my acquaintance’s girlfriend who lives with his drastic mood swings. Or another friend who has to fight the school system to get his autistic son an education. I would safely bet that if someone is not directly dealing with a mental illness him/herself or with an immediate family member who is, he/she, like me, knows people who are or have had experiences in the past. And, there’s a whole other blog post to be written about the number of mentally ill people in our industrial prison complex.

In just the same way that multiple incidents of gun violence points to a problem with guns in this country, the sheer number of people who have a mental illness in this country points to a problem.  So, as I said yesterday, I’m thrilled that American citizens are talking about it.

But, this issue is not as easy to address.  Okay, we have too many people with mental illness in this country. Another part of the problem is a lot of those people can’t / won’t / aren’t getting the treatment to help them with that illness. But, I’m not sure how to begin to address that.

With gun control, I am a gun owner. And, I’ve done a fair amount of research on the issue of gun control. Therefore, I feel like my opinion is valid. With mental illness on the other hand,  I do not have a clinical degree, and I do not have much first-hand experience with the mentally ill. So, I guess my lack of knowledge on the subject makes me feel like I don’t have much of a right to voice an opinion on how to address the problem.

To remedy that, I began to some reading on the ‘net.  But, I’ve come across so much contradictory opinions, I’m feeling even more overwhelmed. For example,  this article was being posted everywhere. When I read that, I was thinking what everyone else who had posted it was: “Wow, how poignant.” and “Oooh, this post helps strengthen the argument that we have to address access to mental health care.”

But, then I saw this article.  And then this one. And, now I’m not so sure about the first one. I guess I’m glad that they all have made me think. But, I’m now questioning the link between violence and mental illness. Now, I’m wondering if this conversation about mental illness that’s begun is going to make things worse by stigmatizing the mentally ill as all being potential mass murderers, as this article suggests.

Stigma pic 1

In my design grad school, we learned a term that I think accurately describes this issue: wicked problem. This issue with mental illness is “… difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize.” And, at first glance, it appears “…resistance to resolution.”

Now that I think about it, I think THAT is why this topic makes me most uneasy. I think I see some clear paths to a solution in the gun control debates. But, with mental illness, it’s very, very murky.

I guess the only thing I can do is continue to read, think, and talk about it. And, I hope that the rest of the country does the same thing.

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Posted by on December 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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