Every one of us loves someone living with a mental illness
BY SUSAN ODGERS Local columnist
At the age of three, standing in the hallway outside of her bedroom, I remember hearing my great-grandmother, a tall, big-boned Appalachian woman, moaning from her bed, “Harv, please, another pill.”
My great-grandpa, Harvey, began his childhood working in the Kentucky coal mines. By the time I was born, he owned hundreds of acres of farmland and numerous downstate apartment rentals. In our family, no one worked harder nor was wiser than Harvey. Confused, I asked my mother why grandpa wouldn't help great-grandma. In a whispered voice weighted with shame, my mother said “Great-grandma Mina is having one of her spells. Grandpa isn't supposed to give her any more medicine.”
Much later I'd realize that Grandma Mina's suffering was due to a mental illness. It was also one of the few challenges my great-grandfather felt ill-equipped to meet.
I often think of my relatives, where I came from and our particular psychology. I believe that's part of the reason I became a teacher, writer, activist and therapist. The wedding ring I've worn for 35 years was also worn by five generations of women in my mother's family. I'm a part of that circle around my finger; their history is my history.
Jack, my firstborn nephew, was the eldest of four siblings. A sweet, tall blond haired young man, he was a thinker with an eagerness to please. Nearly 20 years ago, as a 17-year-old senior, Jack committed suicide. In a short period of time, several students at his high school also committed suicide; earning it the nickname "Suicide High."
From his younger siblings to his grandparents, I never saw my family in more pain. Jack's death changed us all.
Every one of us loves someone living with a mental illness — military veterans with PTSD, college students with eating disorders and anxiety, older adults with depression, various addictions, schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder, children with learning issues and spouses with suicidal ideation. These illnesses impact thinking, mood and behavior. They also can be treated.
Just the other day, my friend, Satya, a family practice resident, was telling me that many physicians know beyond any doubt, that a patient's mental and physical health must be addressed together. To do otherwise is to not treat the whole person.
We live in a region with a former state mental institution, yet many of us know little about our neighbors who lived there. Currently, we worry that people with mental illness are violent, criminal and dangerous. However, according to the American Psychological Association, research doesn't bear this out. By far, the majority of people with mental illness are more likely to be the victims of crime, not the perpetrators. Funding parity for mental health and physical health programs has yet to be achieved. There's much more that we all need to know about mental illness.
Susan Odgers is a 30-year resident of Traverse City and has been using a wheelchair for 41 years. She is a faculty member of Northwestern Michigan College and Grand Valley State University. She can be reached by contacting the Record-Eagle.