Mental illness takes a toll on many

Sunday voices: Ruminations

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

One of the most vastly unexplored areas on earth is the human mind. Scientists are only now beginning to unlock the mysteries of how the brain functions, adapts, and heals itself. Mental illness doesn’t have the stigma it used to, but it is still looked upon with skepticism and the causes are still mostly a mystery.

Mental health and mental illness had long been overlooked, and not taken seriously as “real” health concerns. Until the discovery of anti-depressants and other psychotropic drugs, asylums used to be filled with patients who suffered from depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, anxiety, and obsessive/compulsive disorder, as well as dozens of other dysfunctions of the brain. The cure for many of these illnesses was a lobotomy. Crudely developed in the 1880s, lobotomies were performed and perfected, if such a procedure can be said to be perfect, with increasing frequency in the 1930s and 1940s. Rosemary Kennedy is most likely the best known recipient of this procedure. The cure could sometimes relieve the patient of their symptoms. It could also destroy a life, both figuratively and literally.

The stigma of having a mental illness can be overwhelming, not just for the individual suffering from an illness, but for the family. Trying to keep it a secret becomes the central family focus for some people. It saddens me to know this was the case in my own family. I’ll tell you a little story, and although I cannot reveal the names of the people involved, perhaps you’ll understand the heartache untreated mental illness can bring.

Once upon a time there were two sisters. Each of these sisters gave birth to daughters who would later be diagnosed with bi-polar disorder, otherwise known as manic depression. The girls grew up in very different environments, but each exhibited increasingly alarming symptoms as they approached their teen years. One refused to go to school, locking herself in her room, refusing to bathe or wash her hair for weeks at a time. She would cry and howl like a wounded animal for hours on end. The other tried cutting herself and taking overdoses of pills. Each time she took pills she told her mother and was rushed to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. Neither of these beautiful young ladies wanted to die. They just wanted the pain, anger, and depression to stop.

Both were taken to counselors, seen by psychiatrists, and for brief periods of time, hospitalized. It took years for doctors to find and prescribe the right combination of medications that would help. While the girls were struggling to get control of their lives, the parents were struggling as well against their own prejudices. Fathers accused wives of bringing this on, and labeling their daughters as crazy for the rest of their lives. Claims were made by step parents that it was just teenage acting out for attention. The stigma of mental illness was too much for some of them to bear. Angry words were spoken that can never be taken back.

Sometimes there is a happy ending to mental illness. Sometimes there is not. One daughter grew up to complete a master’s degree and become an officer of the company where she works. One is on permanent disability due to mental illness.

I don’t have the answers to cure mental illness. I just know there is a lot of it out there, in varying degrees. We all need to work toward understanding and compassion. We all need to recognize that not everyone, no matter how they look on the outside, is well on the inside.

Robyn Near is a Ripley resident. Send comments to