Early Detection in Mental Illness — Thoughts about John Lennon’s Death 30 Years Later

Lately I’ve been thinking about early treatment and mental illness. When we talk about cancer, we say, “Early detection is the key.” What about early detection for the mentally ill? I recently heard a psychologist arguing on the radio that the field’s focus should include avoiding initial breakdowns, especially in teenagers. Just as early detection and treatment improves the possibility of survival and allows for less invasive treatment in cancer, so does early detection in mental illness avoid changes in brain chemistry and debilitating treatments. 

This requires that we teach people, particularly young people, how to recognize symptoms of mental illness in themselves. And our system needs to be prepared to help people before they’re in dire straits. People need to be able to say, “I haven’t had a breakdown, but I’m heading that way and I need help,” and then get the help they need.

Today this seems especially poignant. Thirty years ago Mark David Chapman had a psychotic break and murdered John Lennon. Chapman’s history of difficulty with conflict, expressing his feelings, and drug use as a teenager are basic indicators for someone who may struggle with mental illness, although drug use can be a sign of a teenager sensing his or her instability and attempting to self-medicate. If other people had been following him closer, or if Mark Chapman had been taught to monitor himself, to ask for help, would John Lennon be alive today?

Has access to care and self-awareness changed in 30 years? Will it change 30 years from now?

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