By Mark Ziobro
Our current perception of mental illness is making us sicker.
No, not sick in a way meant to explain physical illnesses, but in a way that digs into our brain and makes us want to hide the deepest and darkest parts of ourselves. In that part of our brain that feels the need to label these parts as deepest and darkest; as bad or unhealthy. In a way that makes us hold these things to ourselves for fear of others judging us or thinking less of who we are as people.
Very few physical disorders share the stigma that accompanies mental health disorders. If you’re sick, you go to the doctor. Seems simple, doesn’t it? A doctor who treats a physical condition – heart disease, diabetes, cancer – treats the condition, not the person. We don’t see a lot of victim blaming or means testing of the person. A diabetic isn’t tasked with justifying his need to receive insulin; a cancer patient chemotherapy. Patients are not asked to “prove” that they need medical intervention. The diagnostic tests determine this, and the condition, not the person, is treated.
It is not the same at all with mental illness.
Consider a friend of mine, whose son is diagnosed with anxiety, oppositional defiant disorder, and depression, among other things. He’s a boy, a child in need of assistance for these conditions that has hitherto been unable to gain the support he needs. Part one of this situation is financial – the family has health insurance but is tasked with a ridiculously high deductible and a $35,000 spend-down to qualify for Medicaid neeed to cover the intensive hospitalization and treatment their child needs. *
But the second part is stigmatic. As is the cast with many a physical health condition today, the family has had to turn to Go Fund Me as a payment source. The target goal to treat this round of expenses is $13,000; they have made $525 in several weeks of the donation request being live. Those who are not able to donate have been simply asked to share the request so that the word gets out. However, while friends of the family have shared the page, others have turned to commenting on the necessity of his treatment.
Of course this is disguised as concern; and to one commenter, may very well be concern, albeit misguided. First the commenter questions the financial figure requested. Medical costs could simply not be that high; and if they are, insurance can certainly be garnered. There’s no way that a child in need would be asked to pay the absurd copays and spend-downs to receive treatment.
Of course, when the response is that yes, the payments are that high and yes, the child is expected to pay these absurd premiums, the conversation shifts instead of grows. The commenter brings into question the efficacy of the suggested treatment…the need for hospitalization…the parenting skills of the mother. All things we never, as a society, question when the topic of discussion is physical illness. A diabetic doesn’t cause their high blood sugar – although sometimes they do. A cancer patient didn’t contribute to his or her diagnosis – although sometimes they do. But even if they do, no one argues – and shouldn’t – that these individuals deserve their diagnosis and/or don’t deserve treatment. So why are we making these judgements about mental health.
It should be noted, but also shouldn’t be necessary to, that the commenter in this case is not a psychologist or social worker, but just a “concerned citizen.”
Until we, as a society, treat mental illness with the same compassion and empathy that we treat physical disorders, change is unlikely to occur. Insane copays will still exist and continue to rise, mental health funding will continue to be cut year after year, and millions of afflicted persons will feel that to admit they have these conditions will label them as weak or different.
The self-appointed layman “means testers” need to take a step back and analyze their thoughts. Would I say this of a person with a physical disorder? These questions are important. If you wouldn’t say a statement about a man with high cholesterol who ate a horrible fat-heavy diet for a majority of his life (and we typically don’t), you shouldn’t be saying these statements about someone suffering from anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, or personality disorders. These are all conditions that have diagnoses and treatments that are clinically able to be ameliorated. Why should we treat them any different?
As we just passed the Christmas season and have headed into a new year, I ask people to open not just their minds but their hearts. Make mental illness a topic that people feel comfortable talking about. Ask questions about it; not to deny the sufferer’s affliction, or need for treatment, but ask questions to understand. Mental health policy that causes a lack of treatment options as well as the lack of affordability of health care are directly linked to the perception that we, as a society, have about these conditions. By opening yourself up to understanding, you open society up to changing for the better.
Let’s not continue to keep mental illness locked away in the closet with our deep and dark secrets. Instead, let’s treat it.
*For more information about this case, visit https://www.gofundme.com/gabe039s-medical-expenses. You can also donate if able.