Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Suicide;The Silent Epidemic Strikes Again!

     A young man recently lost a battle and with it, his life. Scott Bickel age 21, who was recently named one of the area’s most interesting men by Cleveland Magazine, ended his life by leaping off a bridge near Sagamore Hills. Scott, who suffered for several years with bipolar disorder, had said goodbye to his family and friends in a cryptic message he posted on his facebook page. He became one of the over thirty thousand verifiable suicides per year in the United States. Sadly, that number has been increasing for a variety of reasons.
     As an advocate, I first looked at his passing with grief and wondered what caused him to give up and commit the ultimate mortal act?  Another question that begs asking is, how does someone who was recognized for his positive contributions in life, commit suicide just a couple of months later?
     The only answer I can give to those questions is the unforgiving nature of bipolar disorder, and not being compliant with medication. Suicide, which is the number two cause of death for people in Scott’s age bracket, is not what that person wants; they just want their pain to stop! I can speak on that from firsthand experience, because I never wanted to die, but the pain from the disease just overwhelms its victim. Based on what he wrote; it is clear that this illness also broke him down emotionally. 
     On facebook, Scott wrote, “I MAXED out my energy intelligence, and love EVERYDAY of my life till it eventually burned out my existence from the horrific pain of my life.” This young man wanted to make a difference in the lives of others, and he succeeded. So many people that I contacted all said the same things, he was a bright kid, and sweet person to be around, and the number of superlatives of him goes on. He wanted to prove that no hurdle was ever going to stand in his way, and wanted to inspire others who were similarly afflicted. Sadly, it was the dreadful pain that this illness brings while untreated, and few can imagine its intensity that won out. It wears its pry down until it destroys your will, and your only desire is to end that pain. 
     He also added, “Study about BIPOLAR and help people everywhere. Use my life story and passions to INSPIRE AND BETTER THE WORLD!!!”  He spent a considerable deal of time doing just that. He woke up every day, and started it with the knowledge that he had this extremely misunderstood condition, and he attempted to live life to the fullest. Untreated mania, along with it, debilitating bouts of depression, are overwhelmingly destructive, which drives a person to desperation to be free of them. The disease did not beat him; it just consumed him like it does tens of thousands of people every year. When he said to study bipolar, maybe he was asking for more awareness of this disorder, for more understanding, also for more acceptance of people afflicted.
     Scott, who was an adoptive child, was born to a drug addicted couple, and never knew them. He grew up in North Royalton Ohio, and it was during his high school years that he first exhibited signs of his illness. These are the typical ages that it begins its relentless assault on the individual, and can immediately define who that person appears to be. 
     This young man lost the struggle, but he did attempt to live a productive life.
     Hauntingly, there were several common threads between Scott and me. He was an altar boy for St Josephs Byzantine Church in Brecksville. This is the same one that I grew up in, and served as an altar boy when it was located on Orleans Ave, on Cleveland’s Southeast side, several decades before him.  After his diagnosis, he strove to become an advocate, and help others similarly afflicted, just like I have done. He wrote a book about his life and his battle with this illness; and so did I. In the past, because of our mutual affliction, we both attempted to end our lives. We both had to wake up every day and experience the inner demons of this merciless disease, and we both did.
     The one area we differed on is facing the life sentence of treatment, which is the main reason people fail at recovery. Because of this, only one out of four people receive, and continue to accept the treatment that is necessary for a successful life.
     I have seen and heard so many cases with similar scenarios, and one noticeably strikes me as being like Scotts.
     In 2003, Garrett Smith, the adopted son of then United States Senator Gordon Smith, also took his own life, at the age of 21, the same as Scott. Like Scott and myself, he suffered from bipolar disorder, and the pain from it also consumed him.  His father, who became a strong mental health advocate after that, chronicled his son’s life in the book, “Remembering Garrett”. With his position, he called for a national dialogue on mental illness to raise awareness of these disorders. Additionally, Senator Smiths continues to work on this subject to this very day.
     People tend to judge suicidal people as being selfish. My replay to that is unless you have lived with a disorder like this; when you existed on the edge between sanity and insanity, and felt the enormous emotional suffering from it; no one has a clue how desperate one can become. Instead of judging individuals like Scott, follow his advice, and learn about mental illness; become aware of its complexities, and the stigma that goes with it. Reach out to those in need, avoid ostracizing them. With greater awareness, we can lift the veil of shame from the silent epidemic of suicide. If more people do, they can enrich themselves, and even help prevent this from happening again. That would be a fitting tribute to this young man.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Tucson Massacre, one year later!

     Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Those that fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it.” His words should serve as a fitting metaphor on the one year anniversary of the Tucson rampage on January 8, 2011. It is clear, that as a society, we have not learned anything, and a dire situation with the mental health system, continues to further deteriorate.
     On that fateful day, a deranged gunman named Jared Loughner, opened fire during a political rally, killing 6 people, and wounding 12 others, including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords. It was a tragedy of almost unconscionable belief. This event should have brought a time for some passion, and reflection as to how this could have happened, and thus be prevented from occurring again. However, it became an occasion for cheap political theatrics.
     Just for a further reminder, the first words of liability were directed at people like Sarah Palin, and of course, the Tea Party movement; who, in the minds of a few, fanned the flames of intolerance and inspired this murderous rampage. Two local politicians, Congresswoman Betty Sutton, and Senator Sherrod Brown projected blame on their supposed violent rhetoric of candidates, and they were responsible for this mass murder.
     In time, cooler heads prevailed, and the truth came out. Neither Sarah Palin, nor the Tea Party had anything to do with this shooting. Even all the reputed, violent rhetoric and imagery was not a contributing factor. To be clearer, it was a fragmented, underfunded and failed mental health system, with antiquated laws that caused this tragedy! Better yet, to paraphrase some recent political operatives, “It was the system stupid!”
    For a better understanding, the laws dealing with people who suffer with mental illness were passed into existence many decades before we understood the biological nature of these conditions. It was a time when people did not grasp the knowledge that it is based on science, not demonic possession. We now know that this is a real illness, and one that it treatable.
     Next, we examine the commonality of these disorders. Mental illness affects over fifty million people in this country alone; and it is an invisible disease, diagnosable primarily by its symptoms. That is what makes recognition of these conditions so vitally essential. So often we dismiss the symptoms as idiosyncrasies, or eccentricities; and ignore, rather than recognize the actions as manifestations of a deadly illness.  Suicide, the silent epidemic of teenagers, would be reduced dramatically, if people could just grasp the existence of mental illness, rather than live in denial that it is a real disorder.
     Now finally, we look briefly at the system itself. This is not a typical medical condition, and because of that, it does not receive the same respect other disorders are given. Individuals are routinely brought in the hospital emergency rooms, looked at briefly by the physician, and given some pills, and told to get treatment. Rarely, does the afflicted one see a mental health professional. Because of an acute shortage of beds, most cases play out this way, without the afflicted one getting any significant treatment.
    This is a perfect example of the “treat them and street” them mentality being utilized by medical professionals across this country. It is time for this to stop!
     In the weeks after the Tucson massacre, the Editor of the Lorain Morning Journal, Tom Skoch, and others, called for a National Dialog on Mental Illness. I am not surprised to report that to this day, only one side is speaking. Sadly, it is the same people who have been talking for many years, the mental health professionals and advocates. Because as more recent tragedies occur, such as the one in LaGrange a couple of weeks ago, it is clear that we are continuing to repeat history.
     I am also giving an update on two of the individuals making wild accusations after the shootings in Tucson. In August of 2011, I contacted the offices of Senator Sherrod Brown, and Congresswoman Betty Sutton, to give me an idea on the changes they have proposed to fix this broken mental health system. Since they were so unrelenting in their misplaced criticisms, I would hope that they would be forthcoming with bold new proposals to end the failures, and bring hope to people.   
     Congresswoman Sutton’s office admitted that nothing has been done. Senator Brown’s office, on more than one occasion, has said, “We will get back to you.” That request to Senator Brown for an update was made in August of 2011, and to date, they have failed to respond, except to say that I would hear from them in two weeks.  As anyone can surmise, once the dust of publicity has settled, it is back to their lobbyists they go.
     In spite of the calls for changes, and a national dialogue on mental illness, and despite all these types of tragedies, nothing substantive has been done to improve care for the mentally ill. In essence, Congresswoman Sutton and Senator Brown have done little to prevent future tragedies by correcting the flaws in the mental health system. Now, they cannot blame it on Sarah Palin, or the Tea Party movement. The two of them need only to look straight in the mirror.
     However, Senator Brown is deeply involved with an issue that could drastically alter the lives of many people in need. He is pushing, in a dramatic fashion, to amend the National Football Leagues rules on lifting the blackouts, when the teams fail to sellout a game. It is his view, that even though the games do not sellout, they should still be televised. I am convinced that millions of people suffering with a deadly disease will appreciate his efforts!
     I must make one concession here. Senator Brown’s likely opponent, State Treasurer Josh Mandel, has never proposed, nor spoken anything of value on this subject. Sadly, I doubt he will, but the verdict is still out on that issue.
     Since the fault of the mental health failures is non-partisan, I will make this a balanced ticket, of failures, and accountability.
     I called, and e-mailed U.S. Senator Rob Portman and asked, “Since that tragedy, what changes have you proposed to correct and update the archaic civil commitment laws with regards to the mentally ill and what have you done to correct the lack of readily available treatment to those in crisis?”
     What I did receive from him was one of those infamous form responses admiring the work that I have done. Also, how he understands, and is sympathetic to the needs of those with mental illness. In other words, he aspires, and will continue to do nothing. This is essentially the same results that have been accomplished by the previously mentioned Senator, Sherrod Brown. Both have more pressing issues with their lobbyists, and campaign contributors, then with doing something extraordinary, like saving people’s lives!
     I did save the best for last; I contacted Congressman Jim Renacci about an independent mental health issue. His response was, “Thank you for contacting me with your concerns regarding illegal immigration.” Somehow, this man equated a failed and underfunded mental health system with the issue of illegal immigration.
     If people are serious about correcting the flaws in this system, I have some areas to start.
     First, we need to modernize the law and develop the mental health courts long advocate by Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton. No longer, should families need to wait for their loved one to become a threat to themselves or others, or even commit a crime to be forced into treatment. They must be monitored, and the individual not be allowed to walk around in a delusional state. Yes, under current law, that delusional state is deemed a right!
     Second, we need medical mandates that the “treat them and street them” mentality of hospitals must come to a screeching halt. If a police officer brings an individual in for treatment, and the medical professional determines that he can be set loose; the law enforcement officer, who did witness the extreme behavior, should be able to override the doctor.
     Thirdly, more mental health facilities to care for those deemed seriously ill. If anyone believes that these facilities are too costly, I have news for everyone; we already have a facility that houses many of these afflicted people. It is called prison, and that is proving to be an even more expensive alternative.
     What I have brought up here is not a cure all; it is a point of origin. We can no longer stand idly by and witness people dying needlessly, and watch families destroyed because of a treatable illness. The dialogue has been ongoing for some time, and it is time that people like the four members of my balanced ticket of accountability to hear us, and begin a means of saving lives! We are waiting to hear from all of you, but, we all long ago quit holding our collective breaths for a response!