Are We Ready Now?

When are we ready to stop with the snippy 2nd ammendment memes and have a real conversation about these tragic events and the challenges we face as a nation?

My heart goes out to the families of the victims — all of them, including the traumatized children who saw their classmates die, who had to run from a building that should have been a safe haven.

And we owe it to those children to be angry. To face our nation’s problems with violence, guns and a pathetic mental health system with clear eyes.

Enough.

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Murder-Suicide: Rare, Sad and Difficult to Predict

My community recently experienced a murder-suicide where a father took the lives of his two young daughters. I did not know the family, although acquaintances of mine did. One of the girls is the same age as my son. This, unfortunately, enables my over-active imagination to picture his face as a victim of a similar crime. I feel deep empathy for the girls’  mother, whose life was immeasurably changed just a few days ago. It makes me feel like someone punched me in the stomach, and I can only imagine how she must feel.

I’ve also been trying to imagine what the father must have been feeling and thinking before he committed this act. This is far more difficult. According to sketchy media reports, he was despondent over a pending divorce and suffered from depression. But millions of people get divorced and millions of people are depressed. And yes, millions are suicidal. There must be something more — something that pushes someone over the edge to commit murder of the people they love before they take their own life.

I was reminded that as a teenager with a bipolar mother, a therapist once told me that someone who is suicidal can also be homicidal. I didn’t fully understand this information at the time, although now I realize that she was warning me that someone who was contemplating suicide may consider it an act of mercy to take family members with them to prevent their suffering. In other words, she was trying to tell me to be careful.

At the time, I thought the idea was ridiculous. But then, I also couldn’t have imagined back then that my mother would eventually succeed at taking her own life. The unthinkable does happen. I’ve always thought that one of my mother’s twisted thoughts prior to her suicide was that she felt we would be better off without her. She couldn’t have been more wrong. I can only guess that the perpetrator of a murder-suicide commits murder as a perverted sense of altruism.

I’ve looked up research on the Internet, but studies on murder-suicide are far and few between. Murder-suicides are rare, thankfully, and the circumstances do vary. The researchers agree on some basic points — the perpetrators are typically men and involve firearms. A history of mental illness, particularly depression is common, as is domestic violence and economic uncertainty.

But none of the studies I’ve seen have helped with understanding why it happens and how to help others who are in danger. Like other forms of mental illness, what causes someone to commit murder-suicide is mostly unknown and therefore difficult to predict.

I hope we can find a way to help. Because the unthinkable does happen.

Is Animal Hoarding a Mental Illness?

We’ve heard the news stories about animal hoarders — people who “collect” animals under the guise of rescuing them until the situation becomes uncontrollable. The photos and stories of starving animals living in their own waste are highlighted in the media across the nation.

The media stories tend to focus on the animals, which they should. These innocent creatures are clearly the victims here. But the news media rarely digs deeper to the real problem behind animal hoarding. And maybe we should be asking, What about the perpetrators?

An enlightening story from the ASPCA talks about the deeper issues involved in animal hoarding cases. It describes the root of the problem as “Animal hoarding is a complex and intricate social issue with far-reaching effects that encompass mental health, animal welfare and public safety concerns. Victims can include cats, dogs, reptiles, rodents, birds, exotics and even farm animals. While it’s not clear why people become animal hoarders, current research suggests the cause is often attachment disorder in conjunction with personality disorders, paranoia, dementia, depression and other mental illness. The hoarder does not intend to inflict harm on animals, and in most cases, the hoarder can no longer take care of himself, much less multiple animals.”

I found this article particularly interesting because I’ve had a lot of experience with animal rescue operations, and the deepest issues involved in the problem are seldom addressed. I do believe, as does the ASPCA that “the solution lies in supplying hoarders with the resources and tools they need to keep them from repeating their destructive patterns.”

To me, that means mental health resources, something that is in short supply already in this country.

If you know or suspect someone you love is an animal hoarder, please check out the ASPCA’s Animal Hoarding page.

Mental Illness and the Gulf Oil Spill

We live far from the Gulf of Mexico, yet we’ve visited and spent a great deal of time in that area. Watching the news makes the tragedy of the BP oil spill feel close to home. While we want to know, we need to know, what is happening and why, the constant news coverage also leaves us with a feeling of hopelessness — what can we do, being so far away? How can we help? How can we prevent such tragedies? What lessons should we as a nation learn? Important questions without easy answers. And they leave us with a general feeling of malaise that we have started calling the August Angst. (Although we suspect it is not limited to the month of August, and it may evolve into a September Snit.) 

So naturally we found it interesting, but not surprising, that the mental health of people living in communities along the coast is affected. This story by Medical News Today outlines some of the findings of a study by Columbia University’s National Center for Disaster Preparedness. Among not-so-surprising results: Over one-third of parents report that their children have experienced either physical symptoms or mental health distress as a consequence of the oil spill.

If we, who live at least a thousand miles away, are feeling mental health distress, it only makes sense that those who are so close (and whose livelihood may depend on the Gulf) are affected. We’re glad someone is studying this issue, and we’d like to send good thoughts out to you Gulf Coastal residents. Let us know how we can help.

U.S. Army Responds to Suicide Risks

I was fascinated to read this AP story about the U.S. Army’s attempts to address suicide among their ranks. What a brave man Army Spc. Joseph Sanders is for stepping forward and becoming the face of this campaign. I found his story to be inspiring, and at the same time, I suspect it is more prevelant than he knew at the time.

I’ve never served in the military, but I grew up next door to a military base. My husband’s family has a long history of military service, and I have some idea of the type of environment and culture that comes with the military life. I can’t imagine a more difficult combination of elements that could spark mental illness while at the same time limiting a person’s ability to seek help. I found it heartening that the U.S. Army is at least giving it a try.

The pressure in the military to “be strong” is part of the very culture of the institution. It is not limited to any one branch of service, one country or even one era of human history. For the U.S. Army to change the message and try to address the problem is quite the “about face.” (Pun intended. Sometimes I can’t help myself.)

This story hits home for me in a very personal way, because I know a military vet who is currently suffering from depression. He lives the “be strong” motto through and through. In his case, just like many others, it is preventing him from seeking treatment for his illness. For him, I want this campaign to be just the tip of the iceberg. I want him to feel like it’s okay to ask for help. I want him to know that asking for help doesn’t make him weak. In fact, it’s the opposite — it requires great strength and courage to seek it.

I’m pleased the Army is making an effort to provide more mental health services, and I hope they dedicate the resources necessary to make it work. Keep up the good work, soldiers. And to Army Spc. Joseph Sanders, I salute you.

Help for Teenagers Affected by Suicide: Break Through the Static

My local paper ran a story about a new nonprofit organization dedicated to helping teenagers who are affected by suicide. This organization, called Break through the Static, defines its mission as creating “a caring community aimed at helping teenagers survive, heal and grow after losing a loved one to suicide. At Break Through the Static, teenagers will experience a safe and encouraging environment designed to strengthen their emotional and physical health through positive peer and adult relationships, and by joining with other teens to share and cultivate their unique talents and interests.”

Wow, I wish this group was around 20 years ago.

In fact, I find it a little disturbing that it took this long to develop such a group. It shows, yet again, the large hole in support services for people who are directly affected by mental illness.

If you are a teenager who is affected by suicide, or you know one, please check out Break through the Static. What an amazing resource for an under-served group of people. We are not alone.

Uncertainty: Emotions Involved When You Love Someone with a Mental Illness

This post is the first of an ongoing series where we discuss the emotions involved in loving someone with a mental illness.

When I look back over my mother’s struggle with bipolar disorder, the most enduring emotion is uncertainty. I never knew what lay beyond the door. Which way will the pendulum swing? Will I come home to the depressed person, unable to function, or the hyper energy of a mania phase?

Sometimes she was irritable as hell; other times she was in a state of terrible, manic happiness. The stages themselves also offer varying degrees of uncertainty—will the mania manifest in relatively minor levels of incessant talking or out-of-control surges of activity? When she talked about her ideas and plans in a manic phase, I couldn’t tell what was real and what was an illusion of her disease.

The uncertainty seemed to increase as my mother’s illness continued. On her good days, I wanted to believe that she was finally, “Fine,” as she promised. I wanted to believe we had found the right doctor, the right pill, the right diagnosis. I wanted, in essence, the uncertainty to finally become certainty.

Except that never happened.

Each time, I let myself believe we had found the answer. And each time, I let my guard down, and then after weeks, days or sometimes minutes, I somehow ended up in the same place I was before—full of uncertainly about my mother and her illness. I never knew where I stood with her. Instead I tiptoed around her or tried to avoid her altogether.

I had to learn to deal with the uncertainty, which remains even years after she died. I mourn for the lost innocence that let me believe I could somehow fix everything—if I only tried hard enough. I know better now.

I believe this particular emotion is not unique to this particular mental illness, although bipolar symptoms in themselves lend to a huge amount of uncertainty. Uncertainty is perhaps the cornerstone of dealing with mental illness. The uncertainty of the disease transfers across to more uncertainty about treating it, and to coping with its effects. Never knowing exactly what the right thing to do is. Never knowing if you did everything you could do.

Never knowing anything again with certainty.