I just finished my first draft of The Shadow of God and I sent it out for review. The story has characters who suffer from mental illnesses and as I raced to the conclusion, I began thinking about the people in my life who suffered from mental illnesses.
I think the first that I recognized was my High School Civics teacher. I had always been a science and math geek and Civics, Sociology, Psychology, and similar subjects seemed a little 'soft' to me. But my Civics teacher brought life to what had previously been a boring subject.
Over the course of the school year, we had lively debates about history, politics, and the future. I have to say that he actually became a friend. That hadn't happened before either.
I did notice that he smoked a lot after class and that his hands shook, but the day it was announced that he'd committed suicide after being on medication for years was the day that I learned that mental illness was all around us, but often hidden from view - or that you needed to look closer to see the signs.
Over the course of my relatively long life, I have encountered mental illness often. Sure, we see the people on the streets who really should be in institutions. But beyond them, I have family members, best friends, employees, and even an ex-wife who suffered from mental illnesses.
I'm not talking about run-of-the-mill depression either. I think that for most of us, depression is real, but it's transitory and often situational. A period of medication and/or daily moderate exercise (as several prominent psychiatrists have recently published), will help people get past situational depression.
No, I've seen much worse: chronic depression, schizophrenia, various forms of psychoses, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, bipolar disorder, and even dissociative identity disorder. In many cases, these illnesses have led to suicides and other violent deaths.
And yet, if you met any of these people at a wedding or other social function, you would never have sensed that something was wrong.
What I've discovered is that virtually all of the people I've known who suffered from mental illnesses had learned to mask their problems when in public, or even with friends and family.
As tolerant people, we tend to accept slightly aberrant behavior. We may find people charmingly eccentric. The boundaries of 'acceptable behavior' are broad.
In other words, people you know and admire may suffer from a debilitating psychological disorder that you just don't see. Several studies claim that ten percent of the population suffers from significant psychological disorders. I find that number high, but it's believable.
Many of these people have illnesses with genetic roots. The potential for schizophrenia, for example can lie dormant for years until triggered by a major life event, or by drug use. I've had the misfortune to know several teenagers who started experimenting and inadvertently triggered schizophrenia. It doesn't happen to most, but it does happen to some.
Still, the single greatest cause of mental illness is childhood abuse - sexual, emotional, and/or physical. But most of these victims, too, learn to adapt and do what's necessary to get along in our society and to fit within the bounds of 'normal' - until something pushes them over the edge and tragedy results.
So why did I write this blog? Like I said, I just finished writing a book about the subject. It brought back my desire to help these people. In my youth, I think I believed that I could help them myself. In my old age, I think I finally recognize that in most cases, I would have been more helpful by encouraging them to seek professional care at the first real signs of a problem.
So I ask you to look around you at your friends and loved ones. I'm not suggesting you should become a grand inquisitor, but do look around. If you see the signs, don't ignore them. You might help save someone's life.