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.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for bringing this subject forward. We have schizophrenia in our family so I am constantly aware of the stigma. Not only the mistreatment and lack of understanding from professionals but the constant use of the disease as a source of comic material from otherwise politically correct, sensitive people. Lasr week Oprah, of all people, made a joke about schizophrenics on her show.

It's a devastating disease and it's just not funny.

Anonymous said...

What a horrible story. I have some experience with that myself - not because I actually had a mental illness when this started, but because everyone thought so. And then, when I actually did develop real mental issues, nobody noticed. *sigh* I also know someone who said he was practically abused while he was hospitalised for something similar as this girl. Sure, it can be extremely hard to decide what the "right" course of action is in a situation where people are not being themselves, but one would think that giving someone socks and a mattress should be possible if they're already being observed 24/7 ...

Gwen said...

That's a really upsetting story. It doesn't surprise me in the least, unfortunately. Negative attitudes towards those suffering from mental illnesses are certainly pervasive in our society.

Unknown said...

If it's the hospital I think it is (St. Joseph's), the place is inhuman. Seriously inhuman. I was hospitalized there back in 2001 (bipolar incorrectly medicated and completely out of control), and all I can recall was how cruel the staff was to the patients. I cannot tell you how many times things I said during therapy sessions were used against me to make me sound more out of control than I actually was. The only way I could get out was consenting to ECT. Otherwise, the future they painted for me involved the rest of my life on a locked ward. At the time, weak, scared, and almost entirely out of my mind, I felt that I had no options.
Many months later, the doctor I saw after moving back in with my parents that summer summarized it thusly: "You spent three weeks in a hospital, and it took two years for you to get over it." She saved my life, got me on the correct cocktail, and less than two years after my time at St. Joseph's, I began my first semester at Penn.
To this day, even after being on effective medication for over 6 years, and being declared in remission, I still see myself as crazy, that one wrong move, one neurochemical misfire could bring me back to what I was in the winter of 2001. I started dating someone in October 2008, and still felt compelled to apologize, to give him the opportunity to "run away screaming." He didn't; nor did the most important people in my life. With that said, the stigma still lives, and goes far deeper than anyone who has not survived a locked ward - either as patient or family member - can ever understand.