Posted on 21 January 2013.
When I attended the candlelight vigil memorializing the shooting victims of the Newtown Massacre, I talked with people in the community who kept trying to understand the complex machinations in a sick mind that commits such a senseless act. The Newtown shooting created a new sense of urgency to understand and embrace mental illness. Just as we tackled a threat to our national security with a comprehensive Homeland Security approach, we need to break down barriers with a comprehensive approach to treating mental illness. This is needed to keep us safe and to save us money, as we alleviate the personal pain so many feel. Most importantly as a nation we owe it to the victims of Newtown and their honor.
With the best of intentions, due to past abuses, we have strict rules around confidentiality and confinement of those with mental illness. As a result, mental health professionals have a confined ability to push solutions on families. Yet heart surgeons like me can do whatever we deem appropriate to help a heart attack victim, including emergency transport to catheterization labs.
In many ways, managing mental illness represents the final frontier of medicine because we struggle with the painful reality of coping with an invisible ailment that sneaks up on us unpredictably and has overt consequences on families and communities. But we are surrounded by differing degrees of mental illness in ourselves, in relatives we love, and in some people that we should fear. I was thrilled to witness this reality addressed so tenderly in the hit movie, Silver Linings Playbook. The movie’s humor cracks our natural defense against “messed up people” so wisdom and insight penetrates into our psyche. More importantly, solutions for the unlikely protagonists come from unexpected places as profoundly flawed people complement each other’s ailments. An institutionalized manic-depressive man (Pat Jr.) is freed by his loving mother who is willing to lie to her obsessive, compulsive gambler husband (Pat Sr.) to give the boy another chance. Pat Sr.’s first question after being surprised by his son’s return is, “Are you taking the right dosage?” Pat Jr. falls in love with a complimentarily strange woman and they awaken a dormant sense of hope by understanding each other without judgment. The movie shows us the humanity and similarities in the lives of those who are challenged with major disorders.
Silver Linings Playbook reminds us that what makes us so adorable as a species is how unique we really are, yet how we complement each other like pieces of a puzzle. I remember taking my three daughters to the Natural History Museum in New York for our annual pilgrimage to the gemstone section. They would innocently pick the stones that they hoped to take home as we left. Two would fight over the Hope diamond while another picked the purest sapphire. None of them ever picked the huge jade stone. Why? Because a flawless jade is pretty boring. What makes them beautiful is their flaws. Just like each of us. We are all unusual in our own ways, but these are the qualities that endear us to the people who care for us.
Mental illness can no longer be stigmatized as we hide our heads in the sand. Let’s recognize that when well managed, symptoms can provide the color and nuance to our lives and shame has no place. In fact, many creative geniuses do their best work when depressed, because feeling down calls for action as we seek to change a reality that is pulling us down. Instead of ignoring the cries for help of those afflicted with mental illness, let’s provide more comprehensive tools to help our communities cope. Like everything else, it takes a village, one I am proud to be a part of. The first step will be revisiting our society’s outlook on mental illness. As Pat Sr. proclaims to his son, “Let me tell ya. You gotta pay attention to the signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this it’s a sin if you don’t reachback.”