Have we really made progress re: mental illness

The tragic suicide of popular actor Robin Williams has puzzled a lot of people. Mental illness is not a disease or disorder that society in general understands, let alone recognizes. There are some who choose to ignore it, pretending that it doesn’t exist. Others have the notion that it is not a serious illness at all, maybe not even real. I have found that even in medical health circles, it is given secondary consideration to physical ailments which are there for all to see.

That’s the problem, you see. Unlike a broken arm or a ruptured appendix, mental illness itself cannot be seen, either visually or with probative equipment. A light shone up someone’s backside may reveal a polyp or tumor, but where does the light shine to pick up mental illness? Only its manifestations, often concealed by the sufferer, are on display.

When I was growing up in England during the ’60s, I encountered the best and the worst that mental health care had to offer. For someone like myself, who experienced depression but not chronic, persistent illness, there was a wonderfully supportive psychiatric clinic, staffed by highly trained and caring health care providers, with a progressive attitude. Whiteley Wood Clinic resembled a country home and was set in a pristine, green belt of the industrial city (Sheffield) in which I lived. It was a healing environment. But, space was limited and on one occasion, I had to go to the Victorian era institution known colloquially as the Mental Home. Charles Dickens could have gleaned his Dotherboys’ Hall image from Middlewood Hospital. It was an awful place that treated sufferers as inmates as opposed to patients.

I understand that now, as in many other places in North America, both these institutions have closed down. Where the seriously incapacitated patients who would be unable to lead independent lives have gone, I would not know. But, many patients have been off loaded into the larger society in “group homes.” Is this a progressive move or has it been done to save money, I wonder? Mental health across Canada receives a scant share of the overall health budgets and I suspect the same is true in the U.K.

Meanwhile, I recall the time that I was made to wait over 6 hours in a hospital waiting room to be seen by a doctor. I had not slept for a week and my anxiety level was sky high. Patient after patient kept being triaged ahead of me – a cut arm, a broken thumb, a bad cough – until my vital signs started to skyrocket and I insisted on being seen.

Has mental illness really made any progress during my lifetime? Not a lot. It’s why I am donating 50% of the royalties from my book, which has mental illness within my family as a major theme, to mental health organizations in Canada and the U.K.

Do you think that mental health care or even the understanding of the illness has improved?







4 thoughts on “Have we really made progress re: mental illness

  1. Well written excerpt, I look forward to reading your book. My family has lots of experience with mental health and mental health care. I think that mental health care and the understanding of mental health by society and our medical professionals needs more funding and vast improvement and better understanding.

  2. I’m not sure if it’s improved, but there’s more awareness than ever before. It’s such a personal journey and in my experience, although I have many friends who suffer from one form of mental illness or another, no one really talks about it. I’ve gone through episodes myself and maybe I’ve attracted like-minded people (who are often very creative and talented) but it’s not talked about enough and I’m not sure why that is other than people want to move on and not dwell on it? I’m not sure but am thankful for your book and the courage to write about this and the many other “taboo” subjects of that time. I hope there is more funding as well, and understanding and healing.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Moe. I agree that there has been more public recognition about it, but it’s still stigmatized in some quarters. I don’t think it gets the funding from governments that is warranted. That said, I so appreciate the way that my colleagues at the university rallied behind me when I became ill with a depression toward the end of my time as Dean. I didn’t try and fudge the issue. I asked my admin asst to send a note around saying I was ill with a depression. The response I got was very affirming and I made sure that I got better and finished off my term on a high note.

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