It is wonderful that we have dedicated a month to increasing awareness of the many issues millions of Americans suffer from daily.
It has been 50 years since I met with my first mental health case, an alcoholic with various mental health issues. He was sitting in front of a diner in St. Louis, asking for money. I took him into the diner, and we had a nice sandwich, iced tea, and about two hours of conversation. I was moved by his story of family dysfunction, job dysfunction, and an attempt at service in the military. As a postgraduate student, I lacked the knowledge or resources to help him then, although I did meet with him whenever I saw him again. Then one day, he wasn’t there. I always feared to find out what happened to him.
Since that time, in my practice as an addiction psychologist, I have worked with over 20,000 people suffering from virtually every form of mental illness. Treatment has improved greatly, protocols and education are better, and medications have been discovered to improve lives.
Nearly one in every four adults with mental health issues also struggles with a substance use problem. This is especially the case for those living with depression, various anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, and personality disorders. Once someone realizes they have a problem, it’s important to realize that you have to treat both your mental health disorder and your substance use for treatment to have the desired effect.
But not everyone can fully put their life on hold to recover. This is why rehabilitation and IOPs (intensive outpatient programs) are helpful. They allow people to learn coping mechanisms and start on the path to recovery while still being able to work, attend school, raise families, and much more.
There has been much improvement in the medical and rehabilitation community regarding treating addiction and mental health. Society-wise, I don’t believe we have made much progress, unfortunately. Mental health patients are seen as “crazy,” laughed at, gossiped about, and shunned by people. People who behave differently from us are referred to as “schizos.” Those who suffer from addiction– a huge group of 41 million Americans– are still looked down upon, mistreated in the social setting, terminated from jobs, forced out of their family, and looked down upon by society. There is little attempt made to understand.
My daughter has had breast cancer; the full deal, chemo, surgery, and every medication is known. Her disease has prompted every group from every corner of society to reach out to her to shower her with love, prayers, support, and encouragement. Neighbors, friends, and people she has never met have supported her. She will survive because of the genius of modern medicine and the overwhelming support she has received, and her strong will to overcome adversity. She’s not referred to as a “cancer.” She is a human being.
Others who have the disease of alcoholism are far from being the recipient of the support, kindness, and love that she received. They are pushed away, ridiculed, and looked upon as third-class citizens. But it’s a disease. An alcoholic or addict suffers and has no more control over its onset than a person with breast cancer. Too many still believe in the “choice” theory.
We need to learn to be understanding. As Bob Dylan told us, “Don’t criticize what you can’t understand.” During this month, read about mental health, depression, and addiction. Become informed. If we all do this, our society will begin to embrace those members of our family, neighborhood, workplace, church, and world. If there are people in your life who struggle with mental health issues and addiction, or if you struggle with it, know that there are many options for starting a path to recovery– you have to take that first step.