Last week we marked the International Youth Day, and the theme this year was mental health. Mental health also happens to be one of the issues I really care about (the other being children welfare). The day was marked in a week that, locally, we all (or at least those of us who read the story) had an opinion on Ms. Victoria Muchiri’s suicide, being one of the most commented articles on the Daily Nation. In case you did not read the story, Ms. Muchiri, a 22 year old student at Ohio State University got into the track of an approaching train and made no attempt to escape from being struck. She died on the spot in a grisly scene.
Internationally the same week, there was a lot of opinion around the suicide of Actor/Comedian Robin Williams. So much was the vitriol around the opinions; her daughter had to quit social media to escape the barrage of dark comments. Robin Williams hang himself after a long battle with depression.
I am not a psychologist or a psychiatrist, so what I share here on are my thoughts on what I feel are two misconceptions around mental health and suicide in general. I want to talk about the “myth of unconditional love” and our misunderstanding of mental health issues. Before I move on, let me share a quote from a celebrated writer who committed suicide at the age of 46.
The person in whom his/her invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window just checking out the view. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. And yet nobody down on the sidewalk, looking up and yelling ‘Don’t!’ and ‘Hang on!’ can understand the jump. Not really. You would have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.” ~ David Foster Wallace
Our Understanding of Mental Health
One of the biggest scares of my life was when a close relative developed a mental illness. She could hear voices and talk back to them, and see people and things that did not exist. She would literally talk to the imaginary people nights on end. The saddest part was when family and friends met to consult; medical attention was somehow thrust in the back ground. People were thinking about exploring curses resulting from unfulfilled cultural obligations, others were talking witchcraft and the church people as usual were thinking demon possession. I opted for medical attention. I walked her to Nairobi women hospital where she was examined for any physical cause of her condition. There was no diagnosis and we were referred to a Psychiatrist in Kenyatta Hospital Doctors wing.
He did his examination, made a diagnosis, and recommended admission for two weeks and medication. His diagnosis was acute psychotic disorder. This in a nutshell he explained was distorted awareness and thinking characterized by hallucinations — the experience of images or sounds that are not real, such as hearing voices — and delusions, which are false fixed beliefs that the ill person accepts as true, despite evidence to the contrary. This he explained can result from brain injury, chemical and substance use or trauma. As it turned out, her condition was due to drugs mis-prescribed to her by previous health care practitioners treating her for a skin condition. She is now well, a happy wife and a great mother.
Just the same way we associate psychotic disorders with witchcraft, curses and demon possession, other mental disorders are not treated as diseases by most people. Think about anxiety disorders, mood disorders (where depression falls), addiction disorders and personality disorders. We rarely term people afflicted by these as sick people. We mostly look at them as bad people, reckless and careless people (addiction especially) or weak people (think depression). The trauma and stigma associated with these illnesses is immense, and care given to them negligible.
A lot of awareness needs to be made around mental health. People need to start seeking medical help for their loved ones who are suffering. A lot of these conditions can be treated, even cured.
The Myth of Unconditional Love
Going back to suicide, one of the comments people make, especially loved ones, when someone commits suicide is “if only we knew he was going through this”, or “if only he had sought help”. The reality is, by the time the person gives up on himself, he deems the people he loves to have given up on him long before. Often, this is usually the case. He is jumping out of a burning high rise building; there is no other exit available.
We all like to promise and expect unconditional love. We want to believe that someone will be on our side no matter what. The reality is, when the worst happens, most people find themselves at the dead end of a lonely street facing their terrors alone.
Doctors tell us in the event of excessive trauma, our bodies shut down in what we call a coma to protect itself. It appears we all often shut ourselves up to protect ourselves from emotional pain as well. We start avoiding the alcoholic brother, walk away from the psychotic husband, or have nothing to do with the sister who never got her finance right and needs constant help. We can no longer stand the tyranny of their needs and the toll it takes on us. We also have lives to live and families to take care of, don’t we? They have wearied our love. We have tried to rescue them but they are unreachable, and we shove that fact on their face.
If we really wish to be of use to our loved ones who commit suicide, it will ultimately take a greater sacrifice than most are willing to make. If we think of them as sick people maybe it will help. It will give us the empathy to meet their excessive needs repetitively the same way we do with normal illnesses. It will also help us seek to give the right assistance which must include medical help, and exclude all that witchcraft, demon possession, and curses talk that is so stigmatizing.
For those of us who are well, we must take caution if we ever find ourselves on that slippery road that might lead to any of these disorders (and yes, there are many situations we may not have control over). As of many other conditions, mental illnesses are preventable, and when gotten, seeking assistance early helps. The people we draw our love and meaning from only have limited emotional, financial and physical strength. Where we can help, we must never drive our relationships to the point they need to walk out to protect themselves.
I like to quote the Story of David’s mighty men in 2 Samuel 23. David is running from Saul and Philistines have besieged Bethlehem. David, probably depressed and dejected longingly wishes someone would get him water from the well in Bethlehem town and that is where the Philistine garrison was. Though there was no reason David could not have drank water from any other well, three of David’s soldiers fought through the Philistine garrison and came back with water from the specific well. Seeing the sacrifice, David poured the water as a libation to God saying drinking that water would have been like drinking their blood.
My prayer is that during your darkest time, you will have that friend who will make the ultimate sacrifice to meet your most unreasonable needs and help you back up. I also pray that you will have the wisdom and strength to see the sacrifice, and summon all you will to not make light their sacrifice, or keep sending them back in harm’s way.