On Friday we had to take my youngest daughter to a nearby hospital so she could be evaluated and admitted for her bipolar disorder. She threatened me with a spatula and smashed a plate. She is well-medicated and compliant, but she recently had a dosage adjustment and has been growing increasingly agitated over the last few days. She was willing to go and will probably be released from the hospital on Monday.
For many, the thought of taking medication for mental illness is embarrassing in ways that taking medication for high blood pressure or allergies is not. I also take medications for both high blood pressure and severe allergies. But the reaction people have to news reports about an individual when it is announced “he was on anti-depressants,” is different than if he was on anti-histamines. That someone takes Allegra regularly matters not to the news, unlike if she’s on Wellbutrin.
Given that medication can help something like depression as much as medication can help my sneezing at pollen or my high-blood pressure, it seems rather obvious that there’s not a fundamental difference between mental illness and other physical illnesses. The distinction is artificial. After all, the brain is as much a physical thing as one’s heart. Medicine can help both. It’s ALL physical illness. That’s why a medical doctor had no qualms about prescribing Wellbutrin for patients that need that.
Depression is not something that someone can just “snap out of.” Neither is someone suffering from the illness going to be helped by a friend or neighbor coming over to “cheer them up.” After all, no one would ever think to tell someone in a wheel chair to “snap out of it.” You would not imagine that your offer to “cheer up” the person suffering from diabetes would result in their cure.
But medications can work wonders. There are medicinal treatments now for many mental illnesses, ranging from major problems such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, which can be life-threatening. Sometimes mental illnesses also require therapy—similar to how after some injuries a person must go through physical therapy. For instance, when my daughter broke a bone in her ankle, besides having surgery and taking anti-inflammatories, she also had to endure several weeks of therapy to help her regain proper use of her ankle. Likewise, if a person has suffered with a mental illness for a while, it may be necessary for the person to get mental therapy to help them regain proper thought patterns. Just as an injured foot may create a habit of walking badly, so schizophrenia leads to mental habits—like ruts in a dirt road—that need retraining and redirection.
My wife’s grandmother had high blood pressure. Her doctor put her on medication for it. After taking her pill in the morning, she would take her blood pressure, discover that her blood pressure was normal, and then not take her evening pill. When she found her blood pressure had gone up, she would take her pill again. Up and down her blood pressure went and she ultimately died of a stroke. If you have high blood pressure, you must take your medication all the time, without fail. If you do, your blood pressure will stay down. You don’t get to skip your next dosage just because your blood pressure is normal now.
Some people may begin to resent the fact that they have to take medication “for the rest of their life” and decide that they want to be “pill free.” This is a huge mistake, as it was for my wife’s grandmother.
The same problem happens with those suffering mental illness. All too many people who take medication for schizophrenia or bipolar disorder decide to stop taking their medication because “I feel fine now.” And of course, they immediately develop their old symptoms again as soon as they stop taking their drugs. But once they go off their medication, they lose the understanding that they need it and they rapidly deteriorate.
Sadly, many of the homeless we see are in that situation because they are mentally ill and are in desperate need of medication. But in their ill state, they don’t realize they have the need. Unmedicated, they are commonly resistant to getting diagnosed or taking their medication. And they are “protected” by laws that make it impossible for those who would like to help them to do anything at all for them. It is not possible to “force” someone with a mental illness to take the medicine they so desperately need.
If they had a broken leg or were suffering from hypothermia, they’d be sent to a hospital straight away. The doctors in the hospital could save them from a physical problem. But they would not be rescued or taken to a hospital if they were just suffering from mental problems.
I wonder how long it will be before the general attitude toward certain sorts of illnesses changes.