How did you spend your Sunday afternoon? I spent mine mine devouring a riveting series that I missed on the ABC last year about a mental health hospital in Sydney.
That’s just the kind fun person I am.
But what’s interesting, is where once the subject of mental illness was a taboo one, locked firmly away in the closet – rather like Cancer and homosexuality – at last, the public are now embracing it with all its complexities.
Although in spite of the support (soon to be substantiated by Turnbull’s government in some much-needed dosh), there is still far too much misinformed speculation and stigma about it.
And what makes a topic such as this even more pertinent is when we hear about the daily and shocking examples of domestic violence and tragedy, so often at the hands of ‘disturbed’ perpetrators.
At the end of the day, no-one really knows why people do the crazy stuff they do. We don’t know what makes a man kill himself along with his two children, or beat up and murder his wife. But the question in everyone’s mind these days, whenever we hear of another such tragedy, is whether the assailant was mentally ill? And the words ‘depression’ and ‘bi-polar’ are much more common words now, bandied almost freely about in these situations as we witness the indirect association most people create between mental illness and violence.
Which is bad… although the awareness is good.
The biggest pain and frustration when someone close to you suffers from a mental illness is not being able to understand, control and change them into what society expects of them.
To not be able to help them and take their pain away.
Because sadly, when the mentally ill aren’t supported and understood, and are left to fend for themselves against the demons that torment them, sometimes shit does happen when their own frustration is unleashed before they receive the help they need. And the cycle of violence begins all over again.
That’s not an excuse, it’s a fact.
It should be seen as progress that we are finally in a place where we embrace the complexities of ‘difference’, although only quite recently have we truly come to celebrate the successes of ‘nerds’ such as Mark Zuckerberg, Aspergians such as Charles Darwin, the physically-disabled such as Stephen Hawking, and well-known ADHD entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson. In bygone days the physically disabled would be ridiculed in freak shows and the mentally ill hidden away in hospitals.
We are far more accepting of different minds and bodies now.
And while we should celebrate ‘difference’, we need to be careful that we don’t celebrate mental illness. ‘Increased creativity’ may be a positive symptom of mania, but there are many symptoms of the illness that are not so palatable. We mustn’t romanticise these disorders or associate them with ‘cool’ rock stars or artists, many of whom have lost their lives to their mood disorders and alcohol and drug abuse when used as self-medication.
Sensationalising the lives of the many famous musicians and artists who have died as a result of depression or Bi-Polar Disorder does nothing to help the common man and his family who are trying to cope with the pain and stigma associated with mental illness. A small percentage of sufferers may experience more highly stimulated creative periods during the highs and lows of their mood disorders, but they also cannot control and balance their emotions, are usually highly unpredictable, impulsive, anxious to the point of anti-social, and have problems functioning normally in the world.
Because these are people who live life close to, (if not over the edge of) life’s boundaries, they may be attractive, superficially energised, stimulating people to be in the company of for the short term, but they can be impossible to live with.
We struggle with this see-saw of mood swings on a weekly basis with our son, and although he spouts the wisdom of anarchy at me in his moments of oppositional defiance and I can see that he believes in it, I know that his words won’t mean anything in front of a court.
Last night (and out of frustration) I asked him if he thought he was a bad person – not my finest parenting moment – so desperate was I to see if he understood the consequences of some of the behaviours he engages in. He doesn’t, and laughed at my question. So all I can hold onto is that he has never hurt anyone intentionally, and for the most part he is grateful and kind. Nevertheless, it’s hard to forget that many of his actions have humiliated, saddened and disappointed us, and are not what we expected when we signed up for parenting.
Perhaps we’re just over-sensitive, over-caring, old-fashioned farts, or simply not Bohemian enough to understand his particular choices and his values.
But the truth is, that no matter how many talks we have with him or how much advice we give him, he has chosen a non-conformist path, and nothing we say will make him adhere to the rules of our house or society.
He is a rebel in the eyes of the romantic; a nightmare in the eyes of most parents.
He doesn’t have a dysfunctional upbringing to blame, neither is he the product of an abusive home; what he has is a confusion of chemicals, a cross-wiring in his brain to explain his anti-social behaviors.
And that won’t help him on judgment day.
Many of our closest friends who have watched our journey with a distant sympathy still don’t really believe that he is mentally ill, because he looks as normal as their own kids.
Just like that dad did, who shot and then drove his children to their death in the water.
I imagine that in their minds our friends have categorised our son as either a ‘wild child’, a ‘bad seed’, or they secretly believe that he will ‘grow out of it’. But he won’t. This is not a phase. The best we can hope for is that he learns to manage his symptoms and keep taking his medication.
I secretly hold onto the hope that he is just a ‘wild child’, and that he will eventually find some self-acceptance through something he is good at, and will mature while he is still a young man. I hope that one day we will be able to look back on these years and celebrate that we got through them, because once these kids get older, if they still can’t function in society, they can end up homeless, suicidal or living on the state – lows that are hard to recover from.
In the meantime we face a waiting game. We wait for our ‘wild child’ to reach crisis point, because there is no real support until he hits rock bottom. All society can afford is to wait for these kids to seriously fail, and when they do it attempts to pick up the pieces.
Even though, sadly, by that point it is often too late.
So although the discourse about mental illness is more lively these days – and there is, (finally), empathy replacing the historical disdain – we need an increase in support at the root of the problem; before the seeds turn bad. As parents, we still find it difficult to discuss some of the behaviours of our son with our peers, such is our middle-class shame. It hurts too much; the shame is too great; the disappointment too painful.
That needs to change.