Mental health is a popular, yet mostly negative current news topic. It has piggybacked on the national gun control controversy at least as far back as former Senator Gabrielle Giffords’ shooting, and again stirred national, mostly evangelical consciousness this past weekend with news of the suicide by self-inflicted gunshot of Rick and Kay Warren’s son, Matthew.
It appears to be a self-evident truth that most North Americans, if not all nationalities, are uncomfortable thinking or talking about mental health. And . . . we’re very uncomfortable in a face-to-face encounter with someone who has a mental illness – no matter the fact, that statistically 25-percent of people suffer some form of a mental illness, and therefore, every family has or likely will experience mental illness first-hand.
I liken our national, near phobic discomfort with mental illness – and our stigmatizing of those who suffer from it – to the discomfort motorists in my hometown of Austin feel when they drive up to street lights and encounter struggling, frequently disheveled, dirty, and worn-out-looking men and women holding placards asking for food or financial help. Occasionally, of course, drivers are kind and roll their windows down, sharing $1, $2, or a cold drink on a hot Texas summer day. More often, however, windows are kept rolled up, and eyes and attention averted.
I volunteer on a weekly basis at a mental health facility. I’m a client rights’ representative, which essentially means I take seriously the rights and well-being of mental health patients. My job is to demonstrate respect, compassion, and a listening ear when I respond to and facilitate resolution of their complaints. Complaints frequently revolve around their emotional, social, and medicated struggle to live – and heal – within confined and “non-home-like” quarters.
You might know that bipolar and schizophrenia are common mental health diagnoses. Patients typically present imaginative delusions, hallucinations, grandiosity; disorganized, random and racing thoughts; mood swings; et cetera. I admit that sometimes it’s difficult not to inwardly smile at their “stories,” or to think that their “world” is so “other than” my own that we share no commonalities whereby our respective humanities can meet.
In those moments I am so wrong.
Every week, in one form or another, six simple yet evocative words are voiced by one or more clients:
“I just want to go home!”
The words might come in agonized, angry and insistent form, or as they did from one client on the Thursday before this past Good Friday – with sad and tear-laden eyes.
How many times can you recall voicing to a friend or colleague, “I’m so ready to get home!” Or, “I can’t wait to get home!” Or, “When I get home, the first thing I’m going to do is . . .”
The idea of “6 words” came to me several weeks ago while reading an article in The New York Times Magazine, entitled “12 Words.”
In it, Helen Sheehy reflects on her geographically distant caretaker relationship with her paranoid schizophrenic older sister, who at the age of 7 contracted polio and had to live in an iron lung for months, yet still graduated magna cum laude from the University of Oklahoma, and was a speech therapist before schizophrenia assailed her.
Sheehy asks her sister to give her twelve words that will help unlock her writer’s block. After a week’s thought, Sheehy receives her sister’s twelve thoughtfully selected words, which her sister had intentionally positioned in the center of a single sheet of paper –
“Another decade is traveling through, and I’m here, and you are there.”
I hope this glimpse into the lives of a few people, who suffer from mental illness, will be transformative in and for you, so that when you meet people who present symptoms of mental illness, you’ll see beyond the “illness” to the person. A person, who like you, wants nothing more than connectedness to life, home and family.