Simply depressing: mental illness in our midst

Robin Williams, the comedy actor, was found dead in his California home yesterday. Initial reports indicate that his death is a suspected suicide. Very quickly, reports have surfaced that he was suffering from depression. Very quickly, comments have surfaced expressing sympathy for those suffering from depression. Mental illness is going to be foremost in people’s minds for a few days.

Over the past week, we in Jamaica have had mental illnesses and how we struggle to deal with them pushed into the forefront. Several days ago, a policeman was disarmed by a man described as ‘of unsound mind’. He shot two people, who were sent to hospital. The reports suggest that we had a person known to be mentally ill walking around freely. That does not suggest that such persons are dangerous, but if I know Jamaica, the general impression was that he was not going to do any harm. We don’t have a system whereby people in our midst can just be taken into medical care for mental disorders. Someone needs to make such a request, or the person has to seek to have them self admitted. Having the person admitted does not remove danger from our midst, but it allows other processes to take place.

In the middle of last week, a man was badly injured while in police custody. The police have charged two men who were in custody with the injured man with causing the injuries. One of those charged is described as ‘mentally ill‘. Again, that information suggests that we know that someone whose mental condition can be seen to be unstable, is left in the midst of other people.

In both of the Jamaican instances we have people who will be charged for harming others. Again, that observation does not go to whether they did what is alleged. The point is that in Jamaica we let people whose mental health is visibly impaired move freely. There’s nothing wrong with that either, in many instances. The society looks foolish when people lose their lives at the hands of such people.

In the case of suicides, the society and friends looks foolish and uncaring for not having been more aware of the problems someone was facing. But, as many will argue, it’s hard to force treatment on anyone. Even if the person had sought treatment, it’s hard to know what’s working and if anyone has reached the limits of their tolerance. We don’t have crisis meters that show when we are ‘overloaded’. That’s just one of the problems. Also, how does mental illness look? Screaming. Wild actions. Quietness. Moodiness. Much more. It depends.

Unlike physical diseases, we cannot see clear simples like pimples or rashes. Like many diseases, though, our medical practices do not often deal with underlying causes but seek to alleviate symptoms. Think depression and tranquilizers.

The line between mental disorders that are seen negatively and those that offer us creative brilliance is also blurred. We may see that now with a Robin Williams. But, we know of Drew Carey, Jim Carrie…

How to treat the mentally ill is no simple matter. I do not have a suggestion that is generally workable. Should they be in institutions? Should they be under supervision?IMG_1316.JPG Should they be left alone? Whose responsibility are they?

Almost every day, I drive past two women who stand or sit in much the same positions every day, not far from each other. One stands, facing a wall. Another sits on a rock and stares out to the space in front of her. Neither has ever been approached by a passer by that I’ve seen. I drive past them, too. They seem lonely. I don’t know how or why they got there. I’ve no idea who cares for them, if anyone. Unlike the young man who I also often see near the same spot, walking either naked or in a pair of torn dirty shorts, and visibly dirty, these ladies are usually dressed tidily and clean. They are features. But how do they feature? What is their future!? Maybe, we need them to be involved in a tragedy to address that.