Last week, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley spoke out about the treatment of mental illness in the state. The same day, I found out my Dad, who I had helped enroll in treatment a few weeks ago, is back off his medication and back into his window seat, where he spends his days perched in the sunlight, drifting in and out of sleep, like a cat with little else to do.
As Coakley talked broadly about changes to the healthcare system, she reiterated what many people feel - that changing our success rates in mental illness treatment begins with changing attitudes toward these diseases.
"Too many patients resist seeking treatment, and too many families feel pressure to do the same," she said.
In high school, I wrote my senior thesis on this very idea. While most seniors dragged their feet at having to write the extensive research paper, I dove head first into the project, looking forward to working on my paper - "Stigma surrounding mental illness and stigma reduction techniques."
It had begun with a question that my mom asked over and over when we were growing up. "If you have cancer, or diabetes, you reach to the community for support. Why does no one support people with Bipolar Disorder?"
Her question stuck with me, and repeating it gave me an in to work with one of the most well-respected professors at Boston University's School of Medicine. I looked into the world of stigma and was amazed at how complex it was. The paper gave a lot of analysis, and no answers.
When the project was finished, I asked one of the graders what I could have done to get high honors, rather than the honors grade that I'd received. He said that I should have explored which reactions are stigma, and which are legitimate reason for avoiding someone due to their actions.
At the time, I accepted his answer and wondered why my adviser hadn't brought it up. However, thinking back on it I realized how ridiculous this was, and how much it fed into the very stigma I was trying to combat. Would you avoid a cancer patient because they are needy? Most people would find that abhorrent. The grader's suggestion was just as unacceptable as the words of people who were afraid to help AIDS sufferers for fear of catching the disease.
Of course, if someone is really violent or toxic no one should have to tolerate that behavior. However, the vast majority of mentally ill patients do not have violent tendencies. They are people suffering from disease and needing all the help they can get.
Would it be acceptable to cut off my father because dealing with him can be oh so frustrating? I don't think so. Just like if he were fighting a physical illness, we'll keep on battling and raising awareness (while accepting that there's only so much we can do). Wish us luck.
Like too many Americans, I've never really paid attention to Veteran's Day other than being thankful for a day off. Some of my peers were off fighting two wars and my grandfather was a proud Korean War vet, yet the most attention I paid to November 11th came during the year I spent in London, far from home. People in the UK wear tiny red paper poppies on their jackets in the lead-up to November 11th, and by Remembrance Day London was a sea of red. I thought "wouldn't it be nice if we had such a big celebration at home," without realizing that we did, but I just hadn't paid it much mind.
Until this year. As many of you know, I've been working on the Salute to Veterans book being published by North of Boston Media Group. In my short career so far I have had the opportunity to interview great people - teachers making a difference day in and day out or a mom who turned her attention to helping children with cancer. However, no interview has been nearly as moving as the interviews with these veterans.
My grandfather always shied away from talking about his service, and my father-in-law says little about his storied military career. Speaking to the veterans that I have interviewed for the book has allowed me to take a peek into the lives of millions of Americans. Lives that have been rocked by conflicts across the globe. Seeing just how effected by war the veterans are decades later is jolting - nearly all of them have cried during our interviews.
At the same time, many of the veterans downplay their service, speaking of a sense of duty. Their service was just something that had to be done. One veteran who served under Gen. Patton in WWII told me, "Even heroes have fear." The son and nephew of seven siblings that served together during WWII brushed off his family's extraordinary service, saying "Everyone served in the big war."
I never had the opportunity to talk to my grandpa much about his military service. However, talking to the veterans that I have connected with on this project has been nearly as gratifying. I will never again let a November 11th slip by without taking time to acknowledge the veterans. Thank-you, vets, for your service, and thank-you for allowing me to tell just part of your stories.
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