“Prevention” for Mental Illness?
If mental illness is biological, can it be prevented?
If mental illness is hereditary, can it be prevented?
If mental illness is a mutant gene, can it be replaced?
Should or can “prevention” even be a part of the mental health vocabulary?
In the physical health world of medicine, prevention is a vital part of their programs, for prevention saves millions of dollars in the Health Care world. We are taught how to prevent heart disease, lung disease, high blood pressure, obesity, etc., but in the mental health world do we talk about preventing a major bipolar or schizophrenic attack? After full blown episodes we talk about “preventing” another serious setback, or relapse, through medication, diet, exercise, cognitive therapy, etc., but we don’t talk about preventing that first serious blow partially because the psychiatric world can only identify or diagnose the illness after it is full blown. Maybe the psychiatric world needs to rethink or take a look at the signs that appear early and them prevent what today we think is the inevitable. A person mentally ill with severe depression emits signs and signals before a suicide attempt, but cannot stop the downward spiral towards that attempt unless they get help quickly and early. A suicide attempt can be and must be prevented. But seeing the signs, understanding the meaning of the signs, and knowing what to do can “prevent” a catastrophe.
As Martin Luther King said, “I have a dream”, but instead of being “on top of the mountain”, I had to first go through “the valley of the shadow of death” to catch a glimpse of this dream. To think that the dream created in a valley not to be a nightmare! While teaching NAMI’s (National Association for the Mentally Ill) Family to Family class locally, I have heard stories from parents whose children were brilliant, creative, artistic, career motivated, college bound, only to see them derailed by a mental illness which hit them while in college or in their early years. Promises of careers and academic success became shattered dreams, now unrealistic goals, and disappointments. All have shared that foresight reveals symptoms, signs, signals given, oh so subtly, while in one’s high school years or even earlier.
I am hoping to put together with another peer an educational in-service program targeted at public high schools and colleges. It would tip off art teachers of the brilliant colors seen through mania. Tip off English teachers of the dark side that can be revealed through writing and poetry. Tip off the faculty and staff of the dangers of isolation in a peer-approval atmosphere when a teen. Give tips on how to communicate with someone facing depression or even suicidal, and give hope and offer help through whatever facilities, groups, or services are locally offered.
When the shooting occurred at Virginia Tech several years ago, I knew at the moment what happened. There were signs of the young man’s illness that were not picked up by his high school teachers, his Resident Counselor or the college campus staff. I do not even know what services the college had in place on campus for a student like him at that time. At universities where there are tens of thousands of late teens, early twenties students, I can not help but think of the number of students there, on their own, alone, with the chance of isolation and pressures to academically produce, who may be fighting a mental illness. Can they get help before spiraling towards suicide or a drastic measure like happened at Virginia Tech? Can you imagine a student who is taking medication facing the “party” atmosphere of almost every major university in this country. Medications, experimental drugs, and drinking are a dangerous mixture causing disaster.
If students are identified early, before they have a crisis, medication, good health tips, exercise, being around an encouraging, empathetic, compassion, understanding support system of friends, personal family, educators, a religious community, a student could be prepared when going it alone in a new, challenging, pressure packed world of higher education.
All this would be prevention. As an educator by profession, I have been trained what to do if a student talks about death, suicide, etc., but never been taught about early symptoms, warning, etc. where a full blown mental illness attack or even a suicide attempt could be prevented.
Although in its incubation stage, I have a dream. We will see what develops this year!