It's time to talk about mental illness

It's time to talk about mental illness

My family has a history of mental illness. My father has eight siblings. His elder sister and youngest brother were sick for a long time. They were not diagnosed or treated until much later in their lives. My aunt, now 61, lives with bipolar disorder. She is on medication. She works and she travels. She is strong. Years ago, she taught my brother and I to speak Mandarin. Years from now, she will teach my nephews and nieces to add and subtract. Now, some days are good. She gets up. Other days, she says she feels hopeless even in her sleep. We don't talk about it very much, almost not at all.

Having family members with depression and bipolar means I am at risk of having it. Twin studies have shown heritability of psychiatric disorders could be as high as 80%, from depression to bipolar I and II. Each disorder is complex, different and wide-ranging — not to be considered together.

A few days after Germanwings flight 4U 9525 crashed on Tuesday last week, attention turned to the mental state of co-pilot Andreas Lubitz. Accidents, natural disasters, acts of terrorism are easier to swallow, to comprehend. None of the 150 people on board the flight from Barcelona to Dusseldorf survived.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to reporters after the voice recorder in the cockpit revealed there was nothing wrong with the plane, but there was something wrong with Lubitz. She said the tragedy had taken on a "new, simply incomprehensible dimension". There is the sound of the knocking on the cockpit door, first softly, then louder and quicker. There are screams, and there is Lubitz's level breathing as the plane approached the mountain peak. Incomprehensible because it is at once frightening and senseless. 

As journalists probe into Lubitz's life, his history, his mental illness, his relationships, as they seek that one clue that would explain such an incomprehensible catastrophe, as airlines review their pilot screening and flight policies, the spotlight should also turn to greater understanding of mental illness. (It is confirmed that Lubitz had been treated for psychological problems but supporting evidence remains unclear.)

Mental illness does not just simply cause someone to commit atrocious crimes, though it may be portrayed that way in the media — Columbine comes straight to mind. Depression doesn't at all explain why a person would fly a plane straight into a mountain at 700kph.

Depression is not uncommon. Mental illness may be a risk factor, but it is hardly a reason. People with mental illness may suffer. They can cope. They can lead full, productive lives. But they can also commit suicide, something much more common than committing mass murders.

To blame crime on mental illness closes off important conversations — it is a dismissive judgement.

As I write, I struggle to find the right words to talk about severe mental disorder. I do not know whether I even have the right to talk about emotional and mental states that I have not experienced. I do recognise that this difficulty has stemmed from a lack of discussion that is much needed in society. In my own conservative family, issues related to mental illness have always been swept under the carpet, as if they were weaknesses of character that need to be concealed. We are not the exception to the norm.

The stigma around mental illness arises because it is difficult to separate the mind from a person, a thought or an emotion from an individual. Chemical imbalance in the brain is not easily comprehensible as a physical problem like a broken bone, but perhaps we could examine it as such. Mental illness doesn't define an identity, just as a person with cancer isn't simply a cancer patient but a person with strengths and flaws, with good days and bad days. 

Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana is a writer for the Bangkok Post's Life section.

Pimrapee Thungkasemvathana

Life Writer

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