Every year at this time, I think of my maternal grandmother, Amy Nicholson Garl, a Swedish immigrant to Minnesota. She was a handsome woman, born in the late 1800’s, who came to America when “dumb Swede” jokes were the mode. My grandmother had suffered childhood trauma—her mother died before they came to America and her father farmed out the kids to relatives because of his drinking. As a child, I remember her being afraid of many things—driving over bridges, strangers, dogs, etc. Today she might have been diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder among other things.
My mother told me that her mother would lock her in a closet when my mother was a child and have “fits” where my grandmother would tear her clothes off. Fortunately, for all of us, my grandfather was a pharmacist—he and a doctor friend were able to medicate her during these episodes. As there weren’t many good treatments for folks with mental illness at the start of the Twentieth Century, I am very thankful that my beloved grandmother didn’t have to go to an asylum and was cared for at home. However, her illness was seen to bring shame upon our family.
This is the time of year I remember how much mental health care has changed. One of my first jobs after college graduation was as a social worker on a Geriatric Unit at Central State Psychiatric Hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. The old campus had beautiful buildings designed by Dorothea Dix, an early crusader for better mental health care. The unit was made up of large dormitory rooms with rows of beds. Men and women were segregated from each other. Many folks who were considered problematic by their families were sent out there. In the early 1970’s lobotomies were still being performed at the hospital.
Despite the beautiful farmland that surrounded the stone and brick buildings, Central State was a place of lost lives. The few medications that were used could cause permanent damage—tardive dyskinesia—which was manifested as involuntary movements—what some folks used to call the “Schizophrenic Shuffle”. And so very little was known about the biochemistry of this brain disorder.
One out of five people in our country suffer from mental illness. Today, it is very difficult to recognize someone who carries a mental health diagnosis. So much has changed in the way of treatments and new medications with much fewer and less devastating side effects. Most patients aren’t hospitalized for a lifetime and are quickly returned to their homes where they can be a part of our communities.
I started having symptoms of Major Depression when I was a teen, yet didn’t get diagnosed until over two decades later. For me, antidepressants make a world of difference! I can function and participate in a meaningful and busy life.
However, there are still many folks who never get help—or their behaviors get so out of control that prison and jails become “treatment” facilities. If you have cancer or heart disease or diabetes, you usually don’t get involved in the criminal justice system due to your symptoms. Unfortunately, many untreated sufferers of mental illness are at risk for homelessness, self-medicating with drugs/alcohol, imprisonment or early death.
Please join National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) High Country Colorado and St. Vincent Hospital in celebrating Mental Health Month by learning more about mental illness and recovery. On Thursday (May 5th) at 6:30 pm in the St. Vincent Hospital conference room, NAMI High Country CO. will present In Our Own Voice, a national program in which folks with mental illness talk about their journey through their illness to recovery. Let’s support our friends and neighbors who are touched by these illnesses. Isn’t it time to eliminate the shame so many of us have lived with and understand that there is hope?
- Annie Livingston
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