Understanding mental health

By Adam McArthur

Do you ever wonder how much you don’t know about a subject?

Try this. Close your eyes and look at the image in your head when you say the words “mental health.” I bet most people would think about a person, probably female, who is sad, and maybe on anti-depressants. Or maybe you picture a homeless man shouting obscenities downtown and the priority is to weave around him without coming within an arm’s length of his shopping cart.

Are both of these cases examples of people who are sick? Or would you be more inclined to call them crazy? Do you care?

Two topics in particular display how both the public at large, and individuals themselves, do not understand the concept of mental health. They display the reality that continues to flaw many a trial and fuel a disease which can effect up to one in five adults.

From autism to Alzheimer’s, we are a population of sick people. Much like alcoholics, the first sign is denial. I know I have claimed denial is also the first sign of not being an alcoholic, but let’s not lose focus.

Examples are not hard to find.

John Hinckley, who shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981, has been in St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. since he was tried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. He has recently submitted a request to leave the grounds to visit his parent’s house, a stay that may include a sleep over.

The hospital staff claimed Hinckley has made significant improvements, and approve of his request. Then, on the program Good Morning America, Ronald Reagan Jr. said, “maybe if John Hinckley isn’t insane anymore he needs to just go to prison.”

Now, I have to imagine the son of a president ends up with a pretty high quality education even if he isn’t that bright (e.g. George W.), but I believe this reflects the overwhelming misunderstanding of what a person with mental illness has to overcome.

I know Hinckley took a pop at your old man, but surely you must be able to disconnect the disease from the person.

Rehabilitation is not possible in many cases, so shouldn’t we celebrate the gains made by the medical community when a man who tried to impress Jodie Foster by shooting a bad president can be treated and released? Why is this seen as a failure of justice?

Another rather disturbing case storming through the press is that of the already-convicted sniper suspect John Muhammad and soon-to-be-convicted Lee Malvo. Malvo was a 17-year-old at the time of the shootings last year and has been described countless times as someone who had been trained to kill by Muhammad, doing the bidding of a man who claimed to be God.

Does this sound like a mentally stable 17-year-old? Locked in the trunk of a car shooting people on “God’s orders?” Do you sentence someone to death for this?

In a recent CNN poll, 85 per cent of respondents said “yes.” Makes you wonder if it is fair and just to put the fate of any life in the hands of peers who seek vengeance before anything else.

My sister has bipolar disorder. Ask me to describe her in a word and the response is “nuts.” The answer should be “sick.” How can we honestly expect a sample of society to make a decision about a person who is just as crazy as they are?

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