The Reality of Mental Illness

Kimberly Tyler Health Guide
  • I had an enlightening conversation with an acquaintance of a friend of mine who recently committed suicide. This acquaintance wanted to better understand how a person could actually decide to kill herself.


    She was genuinely interested, so I began to share. My friend was managing the illnesses of anxiety, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She was diagnosed in her 60's and received treatment until she was 74. Then she took her own life.


    I shared with the acquaintance that mental illness is a serious illness, and I honored my friend for her perseverance through life with the unanswered questions about her mood swings, panic attacks and bouts of disassociation. In the midst of all this, she was a successful business woman, wife to two high ranking officials in diplomatic service, and was at one point in time a model. It was not unlike living in two separate worlds at the same time: the anguish of the internal chaos fronted by an external control for appearance's sake.

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    "Interesting," the acquaintance said as she leaned forward. "Is that enough of a reason for suicide?"


    Full understanding of suicide, I feel, can only best be expressed by the person who has done so. What I do believe is that there was a tremendous amount of despair. Imagine the regular reactions to life's ups and downs; and then imagine feeling deeper downs and more intense anxiety, stress, fatigue, and confusion that do not correlate to the reality in front of you. A person can blame themselves, feel stupid, not good enough, you name it. My friend tried to "meditate" her way into a "better attitude" and even abused alcohol for a time to snuff out the feelings.


    When that didn't work, she turned to religion. She found some peace there. Then, with diagnosis came options. With these three diagnoses of mental illness, finding the right combination of medications can be hit or miss. My friend tried several, found several that worked well for her, and for long periods of time was able to feel more fulfilled and satisfied in her later years because she finally understood that what was occurring for her was not just "mind over matter" or that she could not forcibly control her emotional response the way she would have preferred.


    "Would you mind just calling it all depression and not mental illness?"


    That question gave me pause. It told me so much about her knowledge and her resistance to the truth--the "not wanting to go there" ignorance (perhaps based on fear?) that still exists. The acquaintance was in her 50's. Perhaps she truly wanted to understand, but as I tried to explain to the best of my ability, I think it became too overwhelming.


    After a moment I responded with, "I could, but it wouldn't be the truth."


    That gave her pause. The desire to "re-label" mental illness under the one term "depression" is dismissive of all the variants of mental illness and levels of severity. (And thinking about it now, why pick depression? It is just as insidious as all the others. Again, the degree of understanding is wanting....)


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    What I understood was that the acquaintance wanted to understand, but only to the extent of her comfort level. While I can appreciate that to a certain extent, I also hope she appreciates my candor and unwillingness to water down the reality.

Published On: November 05, 2007