Dark Side of Mental Illness
Lately, many tragedies headlined in the media were categorized under mental health. There were a few gruesome murders of kith and kin by mentally insane people. In spite of a confession, the killer of five of his classmates was found not criminally responsible after experts diagnosed him with schizophrenia. In another case, a father, a medical doctor, who admitted to stabbing his two young children to death, was found not criminally responsible and spared jail time. There is no rhyme or reason behind such wanton acts of crime, yet such crimes happen in the society mainly due to various shades of mental illness. From bipolar disorder to schizophrenia to paranoia, psychosis, and anxiety disorders, landscape of mental illness cover a broad range. Mental illness is not new or not particularly confined to one country or culture. However, public is still not fully aware of the ramifications of mental illnesses.
For centuries, people with mental disabilities were seen in a different light and seen as sub-humans, and weirdoes. Mental illness was deemed as a kind of ‘untouchable’ aberration. The stigma attached to it was demoralizing. Those with mental illness were isolated, abused, and often subjected to unconventional treatments such as sorcery, and witchcraft that led to physical abuse and death. Mentally challenged people were described using many colorful adjectives such as ‘crazy’, ‘lunatic’, ‘insane’, ‘nutcase’, etc. Hospitals, known as asylums, treated mentally ill patients differently using barbaric methods, as no one really understood the disease.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Mental illnesses refer to disorders generally characterized by dysregulation of mood, thought, and/or behavior.” Mental health issues are real, and the associated healthcare costs are exponentially growing. A report from the Harvard School of Public Health and the World Economic Forum projects the global economic costs of mental illness over the next two decades would be about $16 trillion that is more than the cost of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory ailments combined.
These days, I see mentally challenged individuals on subways, in shopping centers, and on street corners. Some look normal like the rest of us, some looked dirty, raggedy, and confused, and some others lost in their own worlds and under the influence of drugs or alcohol. I see many of them panhandle for a living. Most of them are homeless and live on streets as they are afraid to seek refuge at shelters. They mistrust and fear others.
In my younger days, I knew a number of people who suffered from mental disorders. In a small village, we had our share of illnesses. There were no modern treatment facilities, proper medications, or qualified physicians to evaluate or treat. I clearly remember a few instances where young men in shackles and arm and leg braces, and tied to posts on the porch like animals. Their incessant cries for help, their deplorable physical conditions, and the faces of bewildered parents and family members are still vivid in my mind. Family members, not knowing what to do, sought help through witchcraft, sorcery, and quackery. They were inhumanly treated and subjected to unconventional therapies. One of the mental hospitals in Kerala at that time was in Oolanpara. It was a kind of Alcatraz for the mentally ill.
Over the years, a few people I knew tragically ended their lives due to aggravated mental diseases. I knew a father who took his young son’s life and later his own in a heightened mental illness rage. I know families that are split apart due to the ravages caused by mental and emotional issues. There are always reports of suicides, homicides, and other atrocities perpetrated by mentally deranged people. When the mind switches off into a total darkness due to mental illness, the resulting reprehensible actions occur without one’s knowledge.
Now, the society is more aware of the illness and it is treated as such. Treatment methods have changed and improved since Freud and his followers promoted psychiatry as a branch of medicine. Electroshock therapies and lobotomies were given way to modern day treatments. Studies in genetics, new generations of drugs, technological innovations, nuances in treatment methodologies, a more in-depth knowledge, and understanding of the illness, are helping to deal with the mental health issues in modern times. As the awareness increases, the stigma attached to the illness also slowly starting to disappear.
Mental health has a direct correlation to our physical well-being. It took us many centuries to learn that mental illness, just like other illnesses, is not because of anyone’s fault but because of genetics, bio-physiological, and environmental factors. Now, psychiatry and the associated fields have evolved to such an extent to treat mental health issues in a radically enlightened way.
(The author, a technology professional, resides in Toronto, Canada with his family)