Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Mental Illness

See the UPDATE to Missouri Just Keeps On Rollin' Along.

This elegant building is the State Mental Hospital at Fulton, Missouri. Opened in 1851, it was the first public mental institution west of the Mississippi.

According to State Biennial Reports, several probable causes of mental illness were determined in the first cases admitted. Among the more unusual causes were indigestion, religious anxiety, disappointed love, intense study, and jealousy. Epilepsy and tuberculosis were the two most common causes. As psychiatry was virtually an unexplored field, primary emphasis was placed on the physical needs of the patients and maintaining a system of order within the hospital. The majority of patients at this time were aged 20 to 40, and ranged in occupation from broom makers to lawyers. Early methods of calming patients included the use of hydrotherapy (running cool water over patients' wrists and ankles to reduce metabolic rate), sensory deprivation chairs (chairs with straps and a hood to be lowered over a patient's head, depriving the person of his senses), twirling chairs (devised to spin patients in rapid circles in order to separate the "humors" of the brain), and needle cabinets (steel boxes in which patients sat in while high pressure water was pumped directly onto their skin). Strain jackets and shackles were used to restrain patients. All of these seemingly cruel tactics served the purpose of preventing patients from causing physical harm to themselves or others during their psychotic episodes.
Fulton State Hospital History

We've come a long way since 1851 in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. But in some other ways, perhaps we haven't made a lot of progress.

I discovered last night that my great-grandfather, James W. Long, died at Fulton State Mental Hospital in 1945. I had never heard this from any family member. Neither my mother nor my aunt ever told me this. Did they know? Did other, older family members withhold this information from them?

James Long, my maternal great-grandfather, is the second family member I now know to have probably suffered from mental illness. My dad's grandmother, Bettie Sanford Manson, was declared mentally incompetent in Texas in the 1930's. [See related post here].

Mental illness is a secret in a lot of families. There is still a great stigma attached to mental illness. It's something we're ashamed of, something we hide, something not to be spoken of.
But most mental illness is just that--a sickness in an organ of the body: the brain. It's no more "shameful" than appendecitis.

Fact: Mental illness knows no age limits, economic status, race, creed or color. During the course of a year, more than 54 million Americans are affected by one or more mental disorders. [Mental Health America]

Mental Health America (formerly the National Mental Health Association) makes the following points:

  • Myth: “People who need psychiatric care should be locked away in institutions.”

Fact: Today, most people can lead productive lives within their communities thanks to a variety of supports, programs, and/or medications.

  • Myth: “A person who has had a mental illness can never be normal.”

Fact: People with mental illnesses can recover and resume normal activities. For example, Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes”, who has clinical depression, has received treatment and today leads an enriched and accomplished life.

  • Myth: “Mentally ill persons are dangerous.”

Fact: The vast majority of people with mental illnesses are not violent. In the cases when violence does occur, the incidence typically results from the same reasons as with the general public such as feeling threatened or excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs.

  • Myth: “People with mental illnesses can work low-level jobs but aren’t suited for really important or responsible positions.”

Fact: People with mental illnesses, like everyone else, have the potential to work at any level depending on their own abilities, experience and motivation.

So it's time to get over our fears and prejudices and stop hiding mental illness as a family secret.

1 comment:

Jasia said...

Truer words were never spoken, Craig. It's definitely time to let go of those myths and fears surrounding mental illness. I remember well how an anxiety disorder was referred to in my family... "oh, it's just nerves". Just like domestic abuse, mental illness was only whispered about, discounted, or denied.