My aunt died on May 3, 2017, emaciated, yellow with jaundice, but clearheaded for the first time in years. Sobriety and good medical treatment will do that. For a brief while, we met the real her. She was kind, funny, and wise.
But Aunt “Carol” (not her real name) will live mostly in our memories as a terror. She was tormented and resistant to help. She left behind a dusty house and a grieving, angry family.
It didn’t have to be this way.
In recent months, we’ve been hearing a lot about mental illness, due to incidents of violence. In April, a man with a long history of mental illness allegedly killed four people at a Waffle House in Nashville, Tenn. That same month, a mentally ill homeless man allegedly stabbed a diner to death in a restaurant in Ventura, Calif.
Most people with mental health issues aren’t violent. In fact, they are responsible for only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts. But it seems that it takes acts of violence to get us to even discuss this common affliction. And just opening up the conversation would be a big step.
Most mental illness starts with mild symptoms - ones that could be potentially be managed with medications. Half of mental illness cases begin by age 14, and three-quarters begin by age 24. When early issues are ignored, they can become much larger problems.
Aunt Carol’s mental health got worse with age. Our family knew about her depression and obsessive compulsive disorder. We knew how she’d break from reality, get angry, belligerent, and impossible to reach. But no one knew the extent of her disease.
Carol was also an alcoholic; addicts are nearly twice as likely to suffer from mental illness.
In the end, it was alcoholism that put her in the hospital - and, ironically, provided the opening for appropriate medical care. Her life is a perfect example of what society does to the mentally ill. First we ignore. Then we deny. Then we realize, perhaps too late, how critical the situation has become.
And, of course, like many people, my aunt struggled to hide her mental health issues. After all, who wants to admit they are fighting their own brain? But, in fact, one in five adults have experienced some form of mental illness.
So instead of brushing it under the rug, let’s talk about it. Urge a loved one to see a doctor. Support community health programs for those without insurance (or the underinsured). Vote for politicians who advocate for better health care. Know that it’s okay to reach out for help.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness lists tips for fighting the stigma as individuals. “Talk Openly About Mental Health” is number one.
Another critical element is prioritizing health care. In May, a panel of experts at the American Psychiatric Association’s annual meeting recommended a single-payer system as the best way to deliver appropriate mental health care. Short of that, we can improve our current system. In Congress right now is the CHIP Mental Health Parity Act, which aims to deliver a broad range of mental health services to low-income children.
But whatever happens with health care policy, we all can play a role in helping someone who lives with mental illness, whether it’s mild depression or something more severe. By simply having conversations about mental health, we can make a positive difference.
My aunt’s brain was consumed by her illness; then her body was consumed by alcohol. But her story will not be consumed by the taboo surrounding mental health. I will not let that happen.
Kate Barikmo just graduated from University of Wisconsin - Madison with her bachelor’s in history, sociology, and educational services. This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.