Sunday, February 22, 2009
The stigma of mental illness
This piece, from my local paper, is both horrifying and provocative. The writer, Joyce Gramza, tells how her daughter, who has paranoid schizophrenia, was punished--in the hospital, awaiting transfer to a residential facility--because of her illness. It's an upsetting story.
What's even worse, as Gramza goes on to catalogue, is that her daughter's case is not an anomaly. Rather, it reflects a level of proven prejudice among doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals. Even for those who should know better, it seems, the stigma of having a mental illness can diminish the level of care, both physical and psychological.
An old friend of mine had a brother who was schizophrenic. I knew Steven as a talented musician whose dreams of becoming a composer never materialized but who made a life for himself despite his illness. Steven was in his 40s and receiving treatment for colon cancer when he died. The autopsy showed that he had literally no white blood cells left. The chemo that was supposed to help him killed him, because no one had monitored his white cell count.
Might this have happened to a patient who was not schizophrenic? Sure. But it happened to Steven. And he was not alone. The studies Gramza cites demonstrate that this kind of dropping the ball on care happens to a lot of mentally ill patients.
My hope is that more people will advocate for their mentally ill loved ones, whether the issue at hand is a mattress to sleep on or proper bloodwork. In the middle ages, people feared that they could catch mental illness from touching someone who had it. Our attitudes today, sadly, have not evolved very much.