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Welcome to this week’s Mental Illness Q&A! My name is Gabe Howard and I am a man living with severe bipolar and anxiety disorders. To submit questions of your own, please email me at [email protected]. Questions that are selected will always remain anonymous. I enjoy reading your thoughts in the comments section. Be respectful, but don’t be shy!
My child committed suicide just over a year ago and the anniversary of his death has brought forth so many emotions, especially anger. I miss him terribly, but I just cannot get over how selfish he was. How could he not even think about what this would do to his family?
Dear Angry Mom,
Of all the misinformation about mental illness that exists in the world, the mentally ill committing suicide is the cruelest one. This bit of misinformation strips the dignity from the dead, vilifies people living with mental illness, and bullies the deceased’s loved ones.
Mental illness has no cure. It is a disease, and people do suffer greatly. And, like many severe illnesses, people do die. But unlike when a person dies of cancer, victims of mental illness are often blamed by the survivors for their own deaths.
To be clear: the person who has died isn’t faking, seeking attention, or manipulating anyone. They are just dead. Their illness was so severe that it literally ended their life.
The mentally ill do not “commit” suicide. It makes it sound like they did it on purpose or that they had a say in the matter. But they don’t, really. Their illnesses were in control.
The entire concept of “committing” suicide, as it relates to mental illness, is nothing short of tragedy. Your son died by suicide. More specifically, he died from his mental illness, which caused him so much torment and suffering that he ultimately succumbed to it. It was not his fault, nor was it his desire. Most importantly, it wasn’t his choice.
Your son didn’t kill himself; the illness killed him. I understand your desire, even your need, to be angry, but please direct it where it belongs. It is not your son’s fault for dying from mental illness any more than it is my grandfather’s for dying from cancer.
I can only imagine the emotions that you, and your family, are experiencing because of your loss. I have experienced loss in my life, but I am certain it doesn’t compare. Please accept my sympathy and I sincerely hope you can forgive your child.
I also live with a mental illness and I find it frustrating that I am always told what is wrong with me and what medicine will fix it, rather than what I am doing well. I acknowledge that I’m sick. I’m not trying to insult doctors, or medicine, but why is the medical community so quick to dismiss the patient?
A Person, Not a Problem
Your complaint is common in advocacy circles. There is often a tense relationship between medical professionals and patients. Ironically, both sides agree that this tension exists, although each side is quick to blame the other.
First, let’s dismiss the notion that anything unethical or illegal is occurring. I understand that doctors are human and, as such, make mistakes. But for the purpose of this answer, let’s assume we are just dealing with a philosophical difference of opinion and discuss ways to “bridge the gap.”
Second, we have many different types of mental health professionals. The negative grumbling most often occurs about psychiatrists, who are the only ones who can prescribe medication and, more often than not, have the least amount of interaction with the patient. Let’s focus our attention there.
The lack of time is a huge impediment to positive interactions and outcomes. No one likes to be rushed, especially when sick. People with mental illness want help realizing their hopes and dreams. They don’t just want a pill or a diagnosis. They want to be well so they can worry about something other than being sick.
Because we have a definite shortage of psychiatrists in the United States, it’s common for psychiatrists to spend an inadequate amount of time with patients, so they are unable to truly understand what the patient wants. They have a small window of opportunity to get the information they need to make a diagnosis, prescribe treatment, and move on. The time you have with a psychiatrist can be as little as ten minutes, and you may have to wait months for an appointment.
To make the best use of your limited time with your doctor, write down your symptoms in advance, keep a mood journal, or perhaps bring a trusted friend or family member to help remember questions or report side effects or concerns.
The best outcomes involve the doctor and the patient working together. If you are frustrated at the amount of time you get with your doctor, there are better than average odds that they are frustrated, too. They want you to be well as much as you want to get well.
Both sides need to realize they are victims of a broken and overloaded system and not put the blame on each other.
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