World Mental Health Day. That’s today. It’s the day on which we come together, united in a call for better mental health around the world. It’s a day on which I usually know exactly what I want to say. This year has been different.
In the days leading up to today I have thought about writing about the WHO topic chosen of Psychological First Aid. Something that I have thankfully been on the receiving end of in the past. Those in the crisis and caring professions (for me it was the Police) providing psychological care. It helped, enormously.
Then I thought about writing about stigma, this time about sufferers of one mental illness stigmatizing sufferers of other mental illnesses. Yes, it happens and I had been on the receiving end of this just recently. I am, apparently, “a fruit loop”.
Then I was thinking about the people of Haiti. I wondered how their mental health was holding up. The situation in their country leaves me thankful for what I have, but I suspect that their need for psychological first aid doesn’t get a look in, the need for clean water and housing coming up as seemingly more important.
My friend, Motivating Giraffe wrote a wonderful post about the over-abundance of Awareness Days, and how they just don’t matter if we (including people at the top) don’t focus on what ‘really‘ matters. If you read nothing else on this Awareness Day, make sure you read this one (oh, and mine too).
But then heavy on my heart over this past week has been a story in the New Zealand news. It has unfolded as the week went on. It’s one of those stories that in other countries there might not have even been a raised eyebrow, let alone a news headline. But here, these things thankfully don’t happen every day. They can still stop the nation in its’ tracks.
A man with a mental illness went on ‘a rampage’ here. Only three weeks ago he was an inpatient in his local (Waikato) psychiatric hospital, but this week attacked his parents, leaving his mother dead and his father critically ill in hospital. No one knows what motivated this attack, except it must have been somehow driven by his mental illness.
For the next few days, his location was unknown. Police mounted a manhunt with no success. And then at the weekend came the discovery of more dead bodies in an unexpected location. The mentally ill man had killed another elderly couple and then taken his own life. The ‘why’s‘ will perhaps never be known but four people are dead and one still seriously ill in hospital.
What really strikes me is the emergence of this man’s mental illness. He had schizophrenia, and it might be easy to simply conclude “oh, that it explains it“. But that’s not fair. Not all people who suffer from schizophrenia go on to murder. Not all people who suffer from schizophrenia go on to commit crime. And not all people who suffer from schizophrenia go from there to taking their own life. But stigma will have us believing all these things.
This man had no history of mental illness (described in one article I read as a “nice young man”) and then apparently he used illicit drugs once. And ‘once’ was enough to trigger schizophrenia. You see ‘once’ is enough for some people and some mental illnesses. It seems it is a game of Russian Roulette. And that was enough to end four lives and leave hundreds in mourning. Lives changed irreversibly.
My point? That mental illness, and the tragedy that can follow, can happen to anyone. The stigma that too often is applied, is unfounded. It could happen to you too.
This story really hits home to me because I was a ‘nice young wo(man).
I wasn’t mentally ill. I had a good career, a nice home and I had prospects. I was ‘going places“. No one expected my life to change dramatically with the sudden emergence of mental illness. I don’t have schizophrenia, triggered by a casual single use of a drug, but I have another mental illness now. One for which sufferers aren’t often described as ‘nice’.
My friends and family had no reason to expect such a dramatic change to my life. And perhaps more importantly, I had no reason to expect that change.
I could accept a friend’s Bipolar diagnosis. I could even visit her in hospital. I had no difficulty in supporting her, because I believed it could never happen to me.
I could accept that a man known to my family had schizophrenia. But when he began to stalk me, I very clearly saw myself as a victim and him as the perpetrator. I didn’t once stop to think that he was a victim too. And I never once thought it could happen to me.
It did happen to me. I got my own (BPD) diagnosis and spent far too many times in hospital. My days in psychiatric wards and hospitals may not even be over. I don’t know what lies ahead.
If you gain nothing else from World Mental Health Day this year, please know that it could happen to you. I don’t say that to scare you, rather that you don’t judge those who struggle with mental illness.
Even for the cases, we hear about in the news, those are real people who struggle/d with real illness. Maybe they were on the receiving end of stigma. And maybe they didn’t get the support or treatment they needed. I don’t know why Ross Bremner killed those people or himself this past week. Maybe we will never know. But what we do know is that they were real people, just like you and me.
Thanks for reading