As May is “Mental Health Awareness” month, I am acutely reminded of the deaths from Alzheimer’s disease of my aunt, at age 69, after a decade-long battle, and my cousin’s husband during this past Holy Week. (Two of his siblings likewise were afflicted and passed away some years ago.) This incurable disease currently affects over 5 million Americans. Witnessing my aunt’s illness, every step of the way from diagnosis to death, was a wrenching experience for the family. She and my uncle had regularly visited my mother on Sunday evenings for a game of canasta. My aunt (who, incidentally, was Mrs. Astor’s bookkeeper) was our score keeper—until she displayed signs of confusion with numbers. That was the beginning of what turned into protracted decline.
Another prevalent mental health issue about which we are reading more and more is depression, which affects 20 million Americans in some form or another. Among those diagnosed are teenagers and war veterans, the latter returning to the states with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (you’ll get a glimpse of that in a book entitled The Untold War, by Nancy Sherman, a review of which will appear in America in the near future). Or check out the DVD entitled “The Misunderstood Epidemic: Depression,” and the book Depression and Back, by Susan Polis Schutz. Treatment options can be confusing and patients misguided (docs and big Pharma colluding?)
I’m glad I came across a piece in The New York Times on April 19 (and expanded for the Magazine section on April 25) by a psychiatrist named Daniel Carlat, whose mother suffered mental illness and eventually committed suicide. He recounts how he came to make an about-face in his own practice. About medication, he writes:
I [eventually] realized, uncomfortably, that somehow, over the course of the decade following my residency, my way of thinking about patients had veered away from psychological curiosity. Instead, I had come to focus on symptoms, as if they were objective medical findings, much the way internists view blood-pressure readings or potassium levels. Psychiatry, for me and many of my colleagues, had become a process of corralling patients’ symptoms into labels and finding a drug to match.
Dr. Carlat’s new book, Unhinged: The Trouble With Psychiatry, has just been published. Also, former first lady Rosalynn Carter has a new book out called Within Our Reach: Ending the Mental Health Crisis, in which she notes that despite dramatic advances in treating those who suffer mental illness, “the stigma still lingers.”
We live in tough times—there’s a lot to be anxious about. Seeking support, then, is a key factor in “hanging on” and healing. Just a couple of weeks ago, a man jumped off the roof of the 42-story Le Parker Meridien Hotel right across the street from our office. Reportedly he had lost his job and was in debt to the tune of $100,000. It’s hard to believe he had nowhere to turn for help.
Patricia A. Kossmann