Mental Illness and Media

Over the past few weeks, there has been a lot of media coverage about the suicide of television and radio presenter Caroline Flack. I didn’t know Caroline beyond seeing her on TV, but hearing about her death affected me deeply for some reason. I had a panicked sleepless night, and couldn’t shake the feeling of tearfulness that started as soon as I’d been told about the suicide. (Note: This post contains a trigger warning.)
In our neighboring Newtown, Connecticut, too many families are steeling themselves for the anniversary of an unspeakable tragedy: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. I've recently been interviewed for an article (coming out soon) about whether I think the Mental Health system in Connecticut has changed in the year since the incident. My answer? Not yet, not that I can see. If anything, we're in danger of sweeping the issues under the rug once again. But the questions remain: Could it have been prevented? Should someone have seen the "signs"? And - more usefully, perhaps - what can be done to help stop future tragedy?
I am doing an on-air shift at a radio station today - so have access to the NewsWire from the Associated Press. This just in: NEW YORK (AP) _ The mother of the man who killed 12 people at the Washington Navy Yard says she is ``so, so very sorry that this has happened.'' Cathleen Alexis said Wednesday in New York City that she does not know why her son, Aaron, did what he did and she will never be able to ask him.
Today, nearly two months since my last post about Amanda Bynes, she has finally been admitted for psychiatric evaluation. What took so long? This much I have personally experienced: until someone you love is of “harm to self or others”, it’s next to impossible to get him or her placed for evaluation. Unfortunately, sometimes by then it is too late. Yesterday, Amanda’s parents were finally able to apply for conservatorship – a decision that was delayed, as it looks like Amanda will stay under psychiatric care for at least two weeks. For this time, as I know all to well, her family will have a time to regroup a bit, breathe a sigh of relief that Amanda is safe for the moment, and gather strength for the fight that lies ahead.
This month we are living with fingers crossed. Ben has had a close call, once again, with his symptoms of schizophrenia. We don't know how it happened, but somehow in late May Ben's med levels began to drop.  We saw the usual warning signs (agitation, self-talk, lack of focus, too-forced interactions, loud and constant music in his iPod, lack of desire to engage, etc.) and yet he kept insisting he was "fine" and "nothing is wrong." But we knew. And we ordered tests. The test result? Med levels near to zero. So we took new precautions, which unfortunately must include a lockbox for the meds. It feels like we have gone backwards in the quest for Ben's independence. And ours.
Latest from Perez Hilton, the National Enquirer and other gossip (oh, excuse me, entertainment news) sites: "Is Amanda Bynes Schizophrenic?" Ignoring for the moment how much we hate that term "schizophrenic", let's get to the heart of the reported issue. Amanda is not doing well, and her parents are worried. How well I know the feeling.
"Are you taking your meds, sweetie?" asks Hannah's Dad, juggling the cell phone as he shops in the hardware store. "Of course I'm taking my meds!"shouts Hannah, as she compulsively counts to 8 in every imaginable way (Hannah has OCD), hides from life under her comforter, and tries to cope with the pain she has inflicted upon herself with a Q-Tip. (Hard to explain. Gotta see the show.) Of course, Hannah is clearly not taking her meds.
A Cause of Sandy Hook School Shooting? The obituaries in my local paper still contain too many heartbreaking attempts to sum up the life of a six-year-old. My friends continue to tearfully share personal connections to the heartbroken families in Newtown, where less than one week ago lives were tragically ended - and countless more changed - forever. As we continue to cry out: Why? how?  And how we prevent this from happening again? The voices of reason speak out: Better Gun Control. Fewer violent video games. A shift in media coverage to stop sensationalizing violence. More enforcement of mandated treatment for those who need it. And - a cause we have felt personally ever since Ben's diagnosis of schizophrenia - more help and services for those with mental health issues, and for their families. Who will listen? Who will act? We must. All of us. Pick a cause and advocate. Fight back. Speak out. Insist upon change. And don't let these issues fade.
I write this just a few hours after having spoken at a legislative breakfast in Connecticut, where looming budget cuts seem aimed at "saving money" by cutting funding to non-profit agencies that provide needed services to people who have disabilities or disadvantages ranging from poverty to down's syndrome to mental illness...people who, with these services, have a chance to rebuild their dignity, their potential, their futures. Without these services? The costs are astronomical - financially as well as emotionally. Homelessness, hopelessness, aimlessness, illness relapse, even crime. And here we are, moments later, hearing the news that another shooting has occured - this time in our own backyard, in Newtown  CT. A shooter has opened fire in an elementary school. An elementary school. Does this have anything to do with untreated mental illness? I have no idea, yet - but it is one of the first things that comes to my mind.
I not only dream for a world someday without stigma and with proper treatment for mental illness - I also hope for it. And, for that to happen, we need each other. Reflecting the theme of the recent NAMI Mercer (New Jersey) annual Harvest of Hope conference, we must work together to plant, nurture, and harvest the seeds of hope. Another "Tragic Drama" re Schizophrenia? On day three of Mental Illness Awareness Week, this news from the film world: another movie is being planned that will focus on a true story of someone diagnosed with schizophrenia - and, of course, the tragic results. Because, I suppose, that is way more interesting to the viewing public than a person with treated schizophrenia, who has the courage, patience, and strength to pull his or life back together after a devastating diagnosis and numerous crises.