By Dr. Annie Brewster
Chris is a 38-year-old Ph.D. student who spent 10 years struggling with and fighting against his psychotic illness. His condition has been hard to diagnose — it’s been characterized as Bipolar and Schizoaffective Disorder at various times. Regardless of the specific diagnosis, the bottom line is the same: Chris has a lifelong mental health condition. He hears voices, and has suffered from paranoia, depression and mania along the way.
His symptoms started when he was a 25-year-old grad student in New York City. Before that, according to his mother, Eileen, he was extremely high functioning — an excellent student, an athlete and a friend to many. She would never have suspected that her son would become ill. But when he grew paranoid and started acting erratically, Eileen began to worry. Ultimately, when she realized how sick her son had become, she knew she had to act. She quickly learned how difficult it is to get help for someone who is mentally ill but over the age of 18. Eventually, after multiple frustrating and unsuccessful attempts to get Chris into treatment, she was told “you need to find three strong men who love him, and you need to go get him, and you need to take him to a hospital,” and this is what she did. Eileen’s story highlights the challenges of navigating the mental health system and of accepting and ultimately embracing her son’s medical condition.
Listen to Chris tell his story here:
Eileen offers her perspective here:
These days, Chris says he is in a different and better place. He has accepted his illness and has learned to manage it with medications, therapy and his support systems. Like any chronic condition, it requires constant monitoring, but he feels equipped to handle the ups and downs and he has become quite skilled at recognizing his symptoms and titrating his medications in response. He is now a Ph.D. student at the University of New Hampshire’s Natural Resources and Earth Systems Sciences program, where he is integrating environmental economics with his background in environmental sciences and engineering. He is engaged to be married and will soon gain a step-daughter. Though his illness complicates his life, he has learned to live with it while maximizing his happiness and productivity.
Unfortunately, and despite much talk to the contrary, mental and physical health problems are treated very differently in our society. We marginalize the mentally ill, and often fail to see the individual underneath the diagnosis. In so doing, we make it hard for such individuals to seek help and to move forward.
Why this double standard? Why the stigma? For many of us, it is easier and less scary to imagine losing physical capabilities than it is to imagine losing control over our mind, even temporarily. In fear, we distance ourselves and see the mentally ill as “other”. This distancing is detrimental on an individual and a societal level. Instead, we should listen and try to understand, and focus on our similarities instead of our differences.
(Dr. Annie Brewster is a Boston internist who became interested in storytelling as a way to promote healing among patients. You can hear more of her stories here, here and here, as part of our Listening To Patients series.)