I hate mental illness. Like genuinely, deeply hate it. I hate that it attacks the source of all that we are. The source of who we are. I hate that it destroys dreams, steals peace and causes the most genuine loving people to become something that they hate. Now, replace “mental illness” with “addiction” and re-read that.
My son was loving, caring and compassionate, unique and intelligent. He was witty and charming and passionate and fiercely loyal. He saw no color, defended the weak, and cheered for the underdog. He encouraged others and poured out the love of Jesus. Intolerance and injustice caused him to grit his teeth and pump his fists. That is who Hagen was, but he was only able to be himself intermittently. Our battle didn’t begin with substance abuse - it began with mental illness.
I watched him suffer for many years before drugs ever entered into our lives. We did counseling and learned ways to manage and cope with the effects of his illness in lieu of medication. Then, as the illness evolved we tried many different medications to find a balance. One turned him into a zombie. One intensified the symptoms. One caused rapid weight gain. One caused severe headaches. One caused chronic nausea. On and on and on..... and that was in elementary and middle school.
The cure isn’t a one pill fix all and oftentimes does more harm as they learn by trial and error what works and what doesn’t. Unless you or a loved one have been on psychiatric medication, you cannot fathom the effects that some of them have. Many people become addicts because they are trying to medicate themselves and choose to treat an illness in a way that has devastating effects. Basically, they were trying to be better in the wrong way. Hagen, like many others, had lost faith and patience with conventional medication and grew tired of being made to feel like he wasn’t normal, but hadn’t lost the primal desire to see and think straight.
Mental health shouldn’t be any less acceptable than physical health, but oftentimes it is. If you have a heart condition, diabetes or cancer, you can seek medical attention with no fear of what people will think about you, and will most likely receive sympathy and understanding. There will be no fear of being labeled crazy, psycho, or weak. No one will tell you to just take a deep breath, count to ten or find something constructive to do. Those with mental illness face shame, scrutiny and suffer more as a result. Their illness causes just as much pain and can be just as debilitating and they can become prisoners of a chemical imbalance that they have no control of. In many instances, mental illness is life long. It doesn’t manifest itself in a limp or a cough. It manifests itself by taking over emotions and affecting behavior . And, it makes people that don’t understand it, uncomfortable. As a result of that, those with mental illnesses feel like they are “less than” because they need help.
According to the National Institute of Mental Illness ``1 in 5 youth aged 13-18 experiences a severe mental disorder and 70% of youth in the juvenile system have at least one mental health condition”. According to MentalHealth.gov, “more than 1 in 4 adults living with serious mental health problems also have a substance use problem”. Connecting the dots, it seems to me that youth with mental health disorders become adults with mental health disorders and of those adults, 1 in 4have substance abuse problems. Those statistics are based on patients that have sought help. Many do not. Do you see where I’m going here? I won’t debate whether or not addiction is a mental illness, what I will say is that mental illness is a foundation for addiction. There are also those that become addicted as a result of an injury requiring pain medication. The medical community does not educate them properly or teach them the healthy way to wean off the medication. Those stories are no less tragic, but this is Mental Health Awareness Month, and that is part of my story.
With a whisper God could make mental illness and addiction go away. In His time He can make that happen, but until then we have to do better. Intolerance and apathy go hand in hand. Intolerance makes the bold statement that one person,race, social class, or mindset is superior to another. Apathy doesn’t make a statement at all. It’s just not caring. They are equally destructive to society because they create stigmas and judgements based on opinions of those that lack knowledge. Stigmas and judgement smother hope, help, and healing. Without hope, help and healing, those suffering continue to suffer.
These statistics are fluid and they will increase. If you aren’t affected now, statistically speaking, you will be. I am not blaming anyone for my son’s death, because ultimately it was his decision to experiment. I’m simply suggesting that a more positive and understanding societal view may have made a difference for him and the millions of others that made the same decision he did. There will be more.
What can you do about it? Educate yourselves. Ask questions. Be part of shattering the stigmas. Be part of facilitating awareness. We can destroy the judgment and apathy against mental illness and addiction by being compassionate and arming ourselves with knowledge. It’s really so very simple, we just have to begin.