How About a Marathon for Mental Illness?

I’ve never heard of a marathon for mental illness.* We have them for birth defects, breast cancer, AIDS, muscular dystrophy, heart disease and even some “orphan” diseases. But not for mental illness. Not for depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or other kinds of psychosis.

It can’t be because there aren’t that many people affected by mental illness. Mental illness is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. and Canada. (See source below.**) What if it could be treated successfully, or even cured? Just think of all the anguish that could be assuaged, the marriages that could be salvaged, the prison populations that could be reduced and the individuals who could be restored to full productivity. And of course all of that translates into billions of dollars in savings.

So why don’t we do more to alleviate the problems associated with mental illness? There are principally three reasons why we don’t.

1) Mental illness is grossly misunderstood. Most people are confused about what constitutes mental illness. We don’t know how to differentiate between “normal” depression or anxiety and the kind of depression or anxiety that completely debilitates a person, for instance. Not even the medical profession agrees on the causes and appropriate treatments.

2) Crazy people scare us. We are afraid that they’ll do damage to themselves or others. We steer clear of them whenever possible. Sometimes we even act like we think that mental illness is contagious. We joke about it (“Mental illness is catching. I caught it from my kids”), but never treat it seriously. We don’t talk about it in polite company in the same way that we would talk about cancer or even alcoholism.

3) Because mental illness can’t be “seen” in the same way as other diseases, we tend to think that it’s all in the sufferer’s head. It’s a figment of his or her imagination or a matter of learning how to think good thoughts. We don’t believe that it can be a real disability; we assume that the mentally disabled person is just playing the system.

I’m very familiar with all of these reasons. I don’t even understand my own mental illness. And yes, it scares me sometimes. And I constantly doubt whether or not I’m really disabled.

It’s humiliating to admit that you can’t handle things that other people seem to be able to. It’s frightening when you exhibit behavior that others consider to be just plain crazy. And it’s a terrible feeling when you realize that you don’t have control over your own mind.

One thing I try not to do is blame my mental illness for my behavior and personality traits. But it’s hard to draw the line between staying home and feeling sane and putting myself in situations where I get so anxious I can barely function. I try to keep my life as uncomplicated as possible because I don’t handle stress well at all, but even I get impatient about the lack of excitement in my life.  I understand why some people go off their meds: they’re tired of not feeling anything.

The problem is, there is no one effective treatment for mental illness. (Not to mention that there are so many different kinds of mental illness.) And so far there is no cure. I will probably always have to take medication for my depression and anxiety. When I don’t (as I have discovered when I run out of meds or am lax about taking them), I fall apart. Even when I do take them, I can easily tip over the edge. And yet I hate that weakness within me.

But what is even worse is how others look at you when they know you have a mental illness. Some people just flat out don’t believe you. Others worry about you unduly. And still others steer clear of you completely. You become afraid that people won’t want to befriend you, date you, marry you, have children with you, vote for you, or hire you. And often you’re right. Sometimes even you doubt your ability to do these things. And the sad thing is, sometimes you can’t. At least, not without help.

My own children doubt the extent of my mental illness. They think it’s awful that I take so many medications. They think if I had a different psychiatrist I’d be able to overcome them.

Each mentally ill person deals with their condition as best they can. It’s easy to be on the outside and prescribe ways to “get over it.”  But until you’ve suffered from a mental illness, you have no idea what the mentally ill person is up against. She has to use her own mind to deal with things that are going wrong with it. He may not even realize that he has a mental illness. But the main reason why the mentally ill don’t get treatment is because of the stigma associated with it.

It’s obvious that society is not willing to deal with mental illness. Most health insurance plans are woefully inadequate when it comes to mental health coverage. 10-15 visits a year is average; inpatient care has high deductibles, and brand name medications, which are usually Tier Three, are expensive. Hour-long visits for psychotherapy are almost never covered; you’re lucky to get a 15-minute medication check for when you go in for one of your limited number of appointments.

We don’t lock people up in insane asylums the way we used to (partly because the state doesn’t want to pay for mental hospitals any more). But being mentally ill is like being in prison and even when you’re being treated for it, you feel like an ex-con.

When there are marathons for breast cancer the participants proudly advertise that they are or know breast cancer survivors. No one would announce that fact if we were having a marathon for mental illness. In fact, it’s likely that no one would come.

**Read David Schimke’s essay on mental illness from the latest issue of Utne Reader.

Read about the father who has run over a hundred marathons on behalf of his daughter who suffers from schizophrenia. His dream is to organize marathons to help to erase the stigma associated with mental illness. I hope he is successful.

*That’s not entirely true: I did find some information about a STOMP OUT STIGMA  (SOS) marathon to be run in October, 2011 which is sponsored by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Greater Chicago. But that doesn’t erase the fact that public support for mental illness is almost non-existent.

House Republicans Jeopardize Women’s Health Care

Last Friday (Feb. 18)  House Republicans voted 240-185 to ban federal funding for Planned Parenthood.

I find this incomprehensible. Planned Parenthood is a respectable, indispensable source of health care for low and middle income women that has been around for 95 years. For some women it is their first, and sometimes only, contact with gynecological health care. Since we still don’t have universal health care in this country, that’s not likely to change any time soon.

Planned Parenthood is not an abortion mill. Only 3% of its services have to do with abortion counseling and procedures. That means that most women who walk into a Planned Parenthood facility do so for birth control, breast exams and Pap smears, and testing for STDs.  [Planned Parenthood’s 2008-2009 annual report states: “For the three million patients our doctors and nurses saw, we provided contraception (36 percent of our total services), testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (31 percent), cancer screening and prevention (17 percent), and abortion services (three percent).”]

Estimated savings from this proposed bill are $347,000. That’s peanuts in a $3.6 trillion dollar federal budget, but one-third of the yearly income for Planned Parenthood. Where is that money going to come from if the federal government withdraws its support? But if the fact that Planned Parenthood offers abortion services at all bothers some people, then why not cut the amount being given to Planned Parenthood by the amount of its income that comes from abortions: 3%?  Why take away all federal support of an institution that provides essential health care for over 3 million women a year.?

Ironically, those who argue for limited government intervention are more than willing to put the government in charge of what women can do with their bodies. Government should never be about restricting choices, but about freedom.

Some argue that the private sector will have to pick up the cost of abortions. What that means is that all women should have to pay for their abortions completely out of pocket unless they’re victim of rape or incest or their health is compromised by a pregnancy. Because more and more health insurance plans are refusing to pay for elective abortions, and some won’t pay for abortions under any circumstances. In some instances, women are being forced to buy additional riders for abortion coverage. That’s ludicrous. Women don’t plan to have abortions any more than they plan to get cancer.

If these lawmakers were really concerned about cutting the budget, they should be for, not against, abortions. For example, one of my daughters recently had a D&C after a miscarriage. It cost $4600. If she had had an abortion when her baby’s abnormalities were first diagnosed, it would have cost approximately $350-950 at Planned Parenthood. [Source here.] If she had not had a miscarriage or an abortion, but her baby had been born with severe complications, it would have cost a great deal more.

Conservatives like to cite the irresponsibility of single mothers and “welfare queens” as one reason why our federal budget is so high. And yet they are willing to severely cripple the effectiveness of one organization that helps women to be more responsible about when or whether they will have children. Shame on the House Republicans and anyone else who votes for this proposal.

Read Rebecca Traister’s excellent article about this issue here.

A True Story About Loss and Making Hard Decisions

It’s one thing to debate the fine points of feminism, such as the insistence on protecting a woman’s right to choose whether or not to have an abortion. It’s quite another thing to have a real-life situation come up which tests your convictions.

I found this out over the last few weeks, starting with my daughter’s phone call telling me the results of her ultrasound.

The news wasn’t good.

She ended up having a second ultrasound and then a more invasive test (CVS) where cells are taken from the placenta to be examined for some forms of birth anomalies.

The results: her baby—a girl—had Down syndrome and Turner syndrome.

Now, Down syndrome alone is not a death sentence, although the defects associated with it can be life-threatening. And there are cases of girls with Turner Syndrome functioning just fine (except for infertility). But if the chromosomal mutations are severe enough, the baby will not survive and that is exactly what my daughter was told by the doctors.

Sure enough, around the 11th week of pregnancy, the baby died and my daughter had to have a procedure to remove the baby’s remains (including the placenta) from her uterus.

But in the weeks between the initial diagnosis of a birth defect and the actual miscarriage, my daughter and her partner were haunted by the question of whether or not to go ahead and terminate the pregnancy.

I am pro-choice. I adamantly reject the idea that a woman should be forced to have a baby under any circumstances. As it is right now, most states only allow abortions in the case of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s health. I would hate to think that any woman would be denied the right to terminate a pregnancy that was going to kill her, or where she would be having the child of her rapist, forever tying her to the man who raped her, or where her child would also be her half-sister or -brother, for instance.

But I am also pro-life. I firmly believe that all life is sacred. However, I also happen to be against capital punishment and war, when, strangely enough, many pro-lifers are not. I also fail to see where the life of the mother is not as important as the life of her baby, maybe even more so if she has other children who need her.

And yet, there is a part of me that believes that sometimes a person has to make a hard decision, one that would normally be left to God, and that is to terminate a pregnancy when the results are going to be traumatic.

One thing that makes me crazy about people who are anti-abortion is their refusal to admit that some babies are not wanted, not loved and not cared for. What good does it do to force a woman to have a severely handicapped child when she doesn’t have the resources necessary for her to care for the child properly? Is someone going to step in and take over the responsibility? Not likely. (And those resources can be physical, psychological, mental, social, educational or economic.)

What if a woman with Down Syndrome gets pregnant? Are we supposed to force her to have a baby she can’t raise by herself (if at all)? And what about a woman who already has other children whose lives would be negatively impacted by the arrival of a severely handicapped brother or sister? (In other words, why would the fetus’ rights take precedence over children’s who are already born?)

The thing is, there are not clear-cut answers for these questions. Every woman’s situation is different and she has the right to decide how much she can handle. And, most importantly, she should not be made to feel guilty if she chooses the alternative that people who don’t even know her think she should.

My daughter was spared from having to decide whether or not to have an abortion because the baby died naturally. But if she had decided to have an abortion, she would have been branded by some people as a “baby-killer.” People who are anti-abortion say no matter what the problem, the baby should be carried as long as possible, even if it dies in utero or at birth. Anything less and you’ve committed murder.

I say that’s nonsense. And it’s cruel.

Continue reading “A True Story About Loss and Making Hard Decisions”

Wear Red For Women’s Health

February 4th is National Wear Red Day.  (It’s always the first Friday in February). The whole point of Wear Red Day is to raise awareness of heart disease in women.

People tend to think that men are the ones who are most at risk for heart attacks. But the fact is,  heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women.  (1 in 30 women die of breast cancer.)

1 in 3 women die of heart disease each year. That’s approximately one woman every minute.

More women die of cardiovascular disease than the next four causes of death combined, including all forms of cancer.

Despite these statistics, only 1 in 5 women believe that heart disease is their greatest health threat.

View the 2011 National Wear Red Day® Knowledge Kit here. Educate yourself. Educate others.

The Problem With Fat People

There’s been a lot of talk in the media lately about recent instances of gay teens who committed suicide after being bullied by their peers. But gay teens are not the only ones who are being bullied to the point of suicide (although they are the most at risk for it: four times as likely as straight teens to commit suicide). Salon.com recently printed Rebecca Golden’s account of the bullying she received as a fat child, of her thoughts of suicide by the age of 12 and the continuing cruelty she has had to endure into her adulthood.

The thing is, I know some people are going to read that first paragraph and think, “Big deal! How does that compare to what gay teens go through? And besides, being gay is not a choice but being fat is.” And that attitude makes me crazy. People are fat for a variety of reasons, most of them complex and, without outside help, out of their control. The jury is out on whether or not fat people are more likely to commit suicide than normal weight people. Some studies have even suggested that they are less likely to do so. I’ve even heard it said that fat people have trouble committing suicide because of their weight. (Ponder that for a moment.)

But if the link between obesity and suicide is tenuous, the link between obesity and depression is not, at least not in our society. Fat people know what “normal” people think of them and that knowledge contributes to their depression. Maura Kelly, a blogger for Marie Claire magazine, only came right out and said what most people think when she wrote:

I think I’d be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other … because I’d be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room — just like I’d find it distressing if I saw a very drunk person stumbling across a bar or a heroine addict slumping in a chair.

Kelly caught a lot of flak for her comments and she later apologized in an update. But it was too late: the cat had been let out of the bag. When fat people read her words, they knew that she was speaking for most of the (non-fat) people in America. And it hurt.

It always hurts, no matter how thick your skin. Even when people are well-meaning, their remarks can cut deep. “You can do it. All you have to do is eat a healthy diet and get more exercise.” If it was that easy, there simply wouldn’t be that many fat people. Fast food and hours in front of the television or computer don’t completely explain why people are fat. It’s not that simple. But slim people don’t believe that. And the media merely reflects what most people think.

Continue reading “The Problem With Fat People”

Why You Should Care About Reproductive Rights

Just because a person is pro-birth control does not automatically mean that he or she is pro-abortion. I wish pro-lifers would get that through their heads. Some groups like the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops and the Family Research Council are pushing for changes to the health reform bill that would make it harder for women to get birth control. The bill, as it now stands, provides women with birth control coverage as preventive care. Get it? It’s to prevent pregnancies and the fewer unintended pregnancies, the fewer abortions. Why isn’t everyone behind that?

But the Catholic Church and various right-wing pro-life groups insist that birth control is a “lifestyle” choice, and that women therefore do not have a right to it. That’s ludicrous. Couldn’t you say that any kind of medical or dental check-up or procedure is a lifestyle choice? After all, no one says that you have to have screenings for various cancers, but let’s face it, if you don’t and you end up with end-stage cancer, your health costs are going to be much higher than they would be if you had caught the cancer in its early stages.

The same goes for preventing pregnancy. Birth control coverage is a lot less expensive than the costs associated with pregnancy.  The average hospital bill is $5,000-$10,000 for a vaginal delivery. Add at least $2,000 if you need a C-section. These figures do not include the medical costs associated with nine months of prenatal visits, ultrasound costs and other lab costs. If your baby is born premature or with health problems, neonatal costs can range from a few thousand for a short stay to more than $200,000 if your baby is born more than 15 weeks early. And that’s not even taking into account the costs you incur after having the baby! [Source:  Cost of Having a Baby.]

One reason pro-lifers are against birth control is because some of them think that birth control causes “mini-abortions,”  (i.e., they cause fertilized eggs to be expelled from the uterus before implantation can take place). While that might be true of some forms of birth control, there are many other options that definitely do not. (It’s also important to note that this can happen naturally, causing what is known as “spontaneous abortions.”)

The National Women’s Health Information Center provides a fairly exhaustive list of birth control methods on their website. Some of the methods they list do not have abortive mechanisms, some of the methods they list do have abortive mechanisms, and the rest of the listed methods are subjects of much debate. [Source.]

The United States has the highest rate of unintended pregnancies of any other industrialized country. (Nearly half of all U.S. pregnancies are unplanned. [Source.]) And that’s in a country where abortion is legal. It’s estimated that 4 in 10 unplanned pregnancies end in abortion. If those pregnancies were prevented in the first place, 1.2 million abortions a year would be eliminated. [Source.] So why is anyone in their right mind against birth control coverage in health care plans?

Obviously, if you’re one of the 4.8 million in the U.S. who doesn’t have any health care coverage at all, you’re going to find it even more difficult to pay for birth control. Is it any surprise then that 42% of women obtaining abortions have incomes below 100% of the federal poverty level ($10,830 for a single woman with no children)?  And that 27% of women obtaining abortions have incomes between 100-199% of the federal poverty level?

You don’t have to be pro-abortion to be pro-birth control. But if you don’t want to be in a position where you have to decide whether or not to have an abortion, then you need to care about your reproductive rights. Don’t let conservatives take away the only means that most women have to prevent pregnancy. (Abstinence is not an option for most women. Forty-six percent of women who have abortions had not used a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant. Of these women, 33% had perceived themselves to be at low risk for pregnancy, 32% had had concerns about contraceptive methods, 26% had had unexpected sex and 1% had been forced to have sex. [Source.])

Women can and should control their own fertility. We are the ones who have to be responsible. In a perfect world, men and women, conservatives and liberals, pro-lifers and pro-choicers would work together to make sure that every baby is not only wanted, but cared for. But until that day comes, we need to be aware of what is being done to erode our reproductive rights and to fight against it.