Mental Illness: Myth – Mental Illness is Untreatable

It has been far too long…. After my last post, I figured I should make the effort to finish this series. That computer crash is still eating at me, but a lot of things eat at me. Why should a computer crash stop me from finishing this off?

One of the less common, but still entirely too common, myths of mental illness is that it is untreatable. I’m not sure where this myth comes from, but I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that it is largely a result of the misunderstandings of what mental illness is and the associated stigmas. The truth is that while mental illness may not necessarily be curable, it is surely treatable. Perhaps manageable is another word to use here.

As usual, from Elder Alexander B. Morrison:

Numerous medications have been developed by the multinational pharmaceutical industry. These potent products have proven of inestimable worth to millions.
I have no doubt that [advances in medicine, physiology, and chemistry] will result in striking advances in the therapy of mental illness.

And from NAMI:

Modern treatments are highly successful; between 70 and 90 percent of people have a significant reduction of symptoms and can live an improved life using a combination of pharmacological and psychological treatments and supports.

Of course, not everyone will find success, but the vast majority can and will find some measure of peace and rest. And I echo Elder Morrison’s sentiment that over time, the world will continue to make extraordinary advances both in our understanding and treatment of mental illness.

One of the greatest joys of doing this series has been meeting and talking with other people about mental illness. One of those people shared with me the following story of her experience with mental illness:

I was in grad school before I’d heard of dysthymia, and it was another year before I could get a diagnosis. But once I knew what it was, there was no doubt.
What is it, then? I’m going to simplify this almost to the point of being offensive: if major depression means you’re completely put out of commission for six weeks, dysthymia means you’re at half-power for six straight months. Or maybe six years. Or, in my case, over ten years.
It’s easy to overlook, don’t get me wrong. I mean no one’s really happy in junior high, right? And the devastating loneliness in high school only helps your writing – even popular kids had to acknowledge that.
But come college, when you’re crying yourself to sleep every night without knowing why, and your roommate (who, let’s face it, doesn’t give a hoot about you) is getting worried, some thing’s up.
But it’s not major depression. Major depression would have caused your… no, I’m owning this, my grades to slip, would have had me skipping classes, eating more or less than normal. Instead, I was diligent, fulfilled all my duties – and then slept all day, leaving me too alert at 3 AM when no one and nothing was around to distract me from my own thoughts.
But that was a low. More often, I just don’t get the highs. I joke that I “don’t do cheerful,” but it’s only half a joke. It’s so rare that I feel truly happy, and when it inevitably ends, the pendulum swings back, convincing me that nothing can ever go right. No matter what I do, I end up in my default state of mildly discontent.
From the outside, someone with dysthymia looks like a perfectly healthy pessimist. “You need an attitude adjustment,” my loved ones have told me. “Be more positive. Count your blessings. Put things in perspective.”
For perfectly healthy pessimists, that’s really good advice. The problem is, I look at how blessed I am, how good I have it… and I feel guilty for having been upset in the first place. It actually makes things worse. No, that’s not healthy – which is the point.
And here’s where it gets scary. People with dysthymia are actually more susceptible to suicide than people who “just” suffer from major depression. That’s because those of us with dysthymia are vulnerable to major depression, and often don’t realize we have dysthymia until we get the major depression treated. Imagine going through that hell (and I don’t use the term lightly), coming out the other side “cured” … and still not being capable of happiness or even a positive attitude. If that second diagnosis doesn’t come, it’s far too easy to lose all hope.
I was fortunate in having a doctor who, before anything drastic happened, listened to my symptoms and told me, flat-out, that while I had less than major depression, I had more than a bad attitude. It took a minor crisis, plus a nasty reminder of some issues that had caused a major depressive episode a few years before, for me to even get that help, but good came out of that, because a diagnosis, in and of itself, gave me hope. I’m not just a pathetic combination of pessimist and failure. I’m sick. And I might even get better.

And I think that sums up anything I could possibly add to this conversation. Thanks, my anonymous friend, for one of the more touching stories offered in the entire series.

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3 Responses to Mental Illness: Myth – Mental Illness is Untreatable

  1. nosurfgirl says:

    That really hits home for me. I don’t think I have dysthimia, but as someone who runs on very little fuel a lot of the time, I know that I can operate better, and it’s frustrating, and still it feels like an inoperable problem. Why do I feel so bleak? I ask myself this question, and then go take a nap and feel better. BUt there are people who don’t get better. They feel that way all the time. That would be so difficult, and especially so if the people around them didn’t understand or support them.

  2. It’s still sad that society sees mental illness in this way. We all have mental health issues in the same way we have to deal with physical, emotional or spiritual (for that matter) health issues.
    Back in 1994 when I was training to be a psychotherapist, I discovered a little known fact: half of all patients diagnosed with clinical depression will get well with no medical intervention whatsoever. That shocked me because of what I had been led to believe about depression.
    We are designed to deal with the condition. We find our own strategies and solutions. Given time, we come out of the other end of the tunnel. We adapt. Some of us are able to do all that without help.

    If only more people understood. If only more people were listened to (like your friend). If only we weren’t so frightened of who we really are and what depths we have to go to. Let’s hope there is light at the end of this tunnel. Human beings are wonderful things!
    best wishes

  3. daveloveless says:

    Nosurfgirl–It’s so true of all of us. And part of the care is our own awareness that some people do feel that way all the time, every day.

    Heather–Thanks for your comments. I’m always glad to see someone with much more training make comments on these mental illness posts since I’m relying on an amateur’s experience and knowledge to talk about a very serious and important topic.

    I’m also glad for the insight that we all suffer from mental illness but our bodies adapt and work through the issues. At least some do. Thanks for the increased understanding.

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