Shamed to Death

by Bill Brenner on May 25, 2010

Why do people with mental and physical illness choose a slow, painful death over recovery?

Mood music for this post: “Estranged” by Guns N Roses:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dpmAY059TTY&hl=en_US&fs=1&]

Last week I went on a tirade against firms putting limits on coverage for mental health care. It’s the same sorry song that ratchets up the fear level for those suffering from depression, OCD, bipolar disorder and the like, and The Boston Globe’s Kay Lazar shed light on a a particularly galling case.

It’s true that the healthcare industry and many employers make it hard for sufferers to come out into the light. There’s the fear of getting fired or blocked from career advancement. There’s the fear of people defining you by your illness.

But even when there’s a workplace full of loving, supportive people and friends willing to accept a person no matter their issues, it can still be hell for a sufferer to break free, because no matter how accepting their environment, embarrassment is a powerful wall.

It’s like people who are too embarrassed to get a colonoscopy because of how the procedure is done. No one has to know about it except their doctor and maybe a couple family members. But they avoid the test anyway because they still find it embarrassing. Then they end up dying of colon cancer a few years later.

Embarrassment is a powerful thing. It keeps a person from seeing things as they really are and keeps them from facing their demons.

It’s not always bad to be embarrassed. God put the emotion in us for a reason. If we’re a jerk to someone or we get caught doing something unethical, we should feel shame.

But we shouldn’t feel shame over an illness and shouldn’t be embarrassed about getting help.

Morris L. Roth, president and CEO of Pikes Peak Behavioral Health Group, made the point in a recent column he wrote on how mental health is essential but often misunderstood:

One in 17 suffers from a serious mental illness. And only 40 percent of those will seek treatment.

You are likely to encounter someone in your family, workplace, school, church or community who is experiencing mental health challenges. If you don’t, you’re still impacted by the cost to our society in unemployment, disability, incarceration and homelessness associated with untreated or misdiagnosed mental illnesses.

Many cases of mental illness, even mild depression, go untreated because of the shame and discrimination connected to a long-ago era when mental health patients were locked away in insane asylums, sometimes for their entire lives. Patients were considered “defective” and “incurable” due to a lack of effective treatments. At times, treatments were barbaric.

We’ve come a long way in treating clinical symptoms of mental illness. For most, symptoms can be easily managed. But we’ve made far less headway with societal discrimination. Consider the 2001 Canadian study of people with schizophrenia that found that social withdrawal had a “great impact” on their lives, while the hallucinatory and delusional symptoms of the illness had the “least impact.”

Today, our clients are living proof that persons with even the most severe of mental illnesses can function normally and contribute to society.

Our experience as the community mental health provider in the Pikes Peak region is that a person with a mental health disorder, whether lifelong or temporary, is capable of many remarkable things, if given an opportunity.

Amen to that.

As someone who has been through years of mental therapy and as a lifelong Crohn’s Disease sufferer who has had to have the unpleasant test mentioned above too many times to count (my colon is basically a tube of scar tissue, so they have to keep an eye on it), I’m going to share a couple secrets with you:

1. Most of the people around you have medical procedures all the time that would seem embarrassing on the surface. It’s a necessary part of life. The body is a machine that needs frequent maintenance. It’s as simple as that. There is absolutely no reason you should feel ashamed about taking care of yourself. OB-GYN appointments are never fun for women, but most of those I know have the scruples to keep their appointments. Cervical cancer is not a good alternative. Suicide isn’t a very good alternative to therapy, either.

2. There is no need to feel embarrassed in the presence of a doctor. If you think this stuff is fun for them, you’re out of your mind. Therapists have heard things from their patients that are probably a lot more off the wall than anything you will tell them. They’ve heard it all. Doctors in general have seen it all.

3. If you never seek help, you’ll never know how good your life could be.

Just some thoughts from someone who has faced embarrassing situations more than once.

I got over the shame, and I’m better for it.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Gretchen Flores May 25, 2010 at 4:24 AM

Good stuff. A lot of people would be doing better if they got over feeling ashamed.

Mary May 25, 2010 at 4:49 PM

Hi Bill,

So true! Remember when people whispered the word (cancer)! Like they could CATCH it!
Great post!

Jane March 24, 2013 at 5:09 PM

I have suffers with Crohn’s Disease for more than twenty years. I used to trust Doctors, now my faith in them is not there. I have had every treatment from Prednisone to Remicade and everything in between.
I am so discouraged by pain and feeling like I am overlooked by Doctor’s, it is like they don’t acknowledge that Crohn’s is real or painful…feeling hopeless even with the best Doctor’s at Mass General Center for Crohn’s and Bowel Disease. Just don’t know what to do anymore. I have had surgery removing part of my small intestine the pain never leaves even when in remission. Doctor’s have told me pain is always physically going to be an active part of my life.

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