The rash of recent mass shootings is alarming, especially the most recent mass shooting in San Bernardino following so quickly after the Colorado Planned Parenthood one. Now, people are not only talking about mental illness as in the Planned Parenthood shooting but also the existence of evil as in the apparent terrorist attack in San Bernardino.
Can mental illness and evil be totally separate issues? I confess I don’t know the answer to this.
But I do know that our mental health system needs vast improvement from my own personal experiences.
My first husband and the father of my children was a brilliant, caring psychiatrist whose articles were published in medical journals. When I left bedside nursing to start our family, we had a plan for me to eventually join his private practice to specifically support the families of his patients. We both believed that families were ideally the best support system for people with mental illness and we hoped that such a plan would lead to better outcomes and help keep families together. Communication was key.
However, while our children were still small, my husband started slowly succumbing to severe mental illness himself despite treatment. I was frantic to help but at that time in the 1980s and even without the current HIPPA privacy rules, I was unable to get much information about his condition or how to help him from his psychiatrist even when there were multiple hospitalizations.
As his condition deteriorated, I was told by his psychiatrist that there was nothing I could do or not do to help the situation and that he was handling the situation. Then he told me that I should consider divorce for the sake of our children.
Since I believe in the sanctity of the marriage vows, especially the part about “in sickness and in health”, I soldiered on and got second and even third opinions for my husband. Nothing helped very much and I was still shut out from comprehensive discussion of treatment plans.
My husband finally abandoned our family and I reluctantly had to file for divorce. However, I still wanted to help him.
My now ex-husband eventually went on total disability for mental illness but since mental institutions were closed decades before for “less restrictive” measures, he became homeless and eventually shuffled from one assisted living facility to another until his death in 2014.
When our oldest daughter started using drugs at 14, I ran into many of the same problems with the mental health community. Even though she was a minor, she had the right to “confidential health services”. This came about because it is thought that minors will be more likely to seek help from a doctor if confidentiality-even from parents- is assured in matters like sex and drugs. Unfortunately, as in my case, that meant that I could be mostly kept in the dark when it came to helping my child. I could pay for rehab but I couldn’t get much information or direction about helping my daughter. I contacted mental health organizations and tried to research support groups on my own with mixed results. My daughter died by suicide using an assisted suicide technique in 2009 when she was 30 years old.
We now have “mental health parity” under Obamacare which was intended to make mental health care better by increasing coverage. However, a recent Washington Post op-ed titled “The problem with Obamacare’s mental-health ‘parity’ measure” shows how difficult it can still be for family or friends to get help for someone with a mental illness.
Mass shootings get our attention about gun control and terrorism issues but the mental health care crisis goes on. We need to do a better job and I still believe that mental health care must try to include and help the whole family for better long-term outcomes.