Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘stigma’

The Worst Side Effect of Psychotropic Drugs

I’ll admit that I’ve had a lot of side effects from the various psych meds I’ve taken over the years, and some of them were bad enough to make me ask for something different. There’s been insomnia, sleeping too much, twitchiness, vivid nightmares, and others. But as far as I can see, there are only two side effects that would make me completely quit taking a prescribed medication, even before I could ask my doctor about it.

The first is Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. It’s what they mean when they say on TV commercials, “a fatal rash may occur” (I didn’t even know rashes could be fatal). Indeed, your skin starts to come off. I think it’s always a bad sign when your insides suddenly become your outsides, like in that Simpsons episode where everyone turned inside out. Among the medications that can cause SJS are anticonvulsants, antipsychotics, and other psychotropic drugs, at least two of which I take daily. When he prescribed them, my psychiatrist told me to stop taking the meds instantly if I got a rash around my mouth and nose, and go to the emergency room. It’s that serious.

Apparently, the anti-smoking drug Chantix and maybe some others can also cause SJS, which I guessed from the “fatal rash” warnings on the commercials and later confirmed. I idly wonder if the rate of Stevens-Johnson has increased now that more of these drugs are being used.

The other side effect that I truly fear is tardive dyskinesia. Tardive dyskinesia means involuntary, repeated muscle movements, which can affect the face (tics, twitches, grimaces) and other parts of the body (legs, arms, torso, and fingers). Think John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. These movements appear after taking medications such as antipsychotics. Worst of all, the movements may become permanent and a number of people are disabled because of them. There are now medications that treat tardive dyskinesia, but I still wouldn’t want to have it.

Yet, what is the most feared, the most despised side effect of psychotropic medications?

Weight gain.

I see countless comments in online support groups asking about weight gain on particular medications and posts that say such-and-such a drug caused weight gain. A number of people post that they will not take these medications, or will stop taking them, because they can cause weight gain.

Admittedly, weight gain is not often a good thing. It can certainly lead to other health problems. But my point is that many people are more concerned about their appearance than their mental health. 

I’ve struggled with my weight too over the years, and I have written about it (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-7o). But I’ve struggled more with my mental health, which could kill me just as surely as obesity.

There is vast stigma in our society surrounding fat people. That’s undeniable. Fat people are stereotyped as lazy, sloppy, unattractive, unhealthy, and more. Despite recent body-positivity messages and a few clothing commercials that now feature more plus-size women (I haven’t seen plus-size men), this stigma continues virtually unabated.

Of course, there is stigma around mental illness, too. Those with mental disorders are stereotyped as out of control, violent, dangerous, suicidal, and a burden on society. I can see that people are reluctant to add the two stigmas together.

But honestly, is weight gain so very bad compared with the chance to alleviate the misery and suffering that accompany serious mental illness (SMI)? Personally, I prefer to weigh more and not live my life in despair and hopelessness.

Some of the medications I’m on can cause weight gain. Some of them can cause Stevens-Johnson Syndrome or tardive dyskinesia. Fortunately, weight gain is the only side effect I’ve had, and I can live with that. Stevens-Johnson is potentially deadly and tardive dyskinesia is potentially permanent. There are things I can do about my weight if it really concerns me, or I can chalk it up to a side effect of being content, stable, and productive.

Frankly, of the possible side effects, I fear weight gain the least.

What Should Medical Students Learn About Mental Illness?

I recently saw a news story reporting that a single medical school, Des Moines (IA) University, has made it mandatory for medical students to learn how to care for patients with mental illness.

Funny. I would have thought that was already happening in medical schools across the country. Apparently not. Although medical schools teach prospective doctors to diagnose mental illness, the article notes, they do not require students to learn how to care for the mentally ill. When the class started in 2018, it was an elective, but it later became a requirement.

The curriculum includes having people in recovery from mental illness, loved ones of patients, and healthcare providers speak to the class. It is hoped that this will combat the stigma that arises from student doctors only seeing mental patients on locked wards when they are in severe crisis.

Of course, confinement on a locked ward is not typical for people with SMI. Many people with bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia, for example, require inpatient treatment only occasionally, spending the majority of their lives receiving treatment, medication, and therapy as outpatients. One wonders if the stigma surrounding mental patients extends to them as well. Do some GPs tend to ignore physical disorders while focusing on the mental ones? It’s fairly well known that doctors sometimes focus on a person’s weight as being the cause of all their symptoms instead of looking for (or testing for) other conditions. Might there be a similar narrowing of focus regarding mental patients?

Looking at the course, the answer may be yes. Interestingly, the main concern in developing the course seems to be that because doctors were so uncomfortable treating psychiatric patients that they focused on the SMI and never diagnosed and treated conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, and other medical problems. Professor Dr. Lisa Streyfeller cites what she calls “really horrifying statistics that folks with severe mental illnesses die on average 15 to 30 years earlier than people who don’t have those illnesses.”

As important as it is that people with SMI receive treatment for their psychiatric conditions, physicians need to be aware that such people have physical needs and illnesses as well. And as encouraging as it is that mental patients themselves, and their loved ones and caregivers, are included in the curriculum, the article made no mention of teaching prospective doctors how to interact with mental patients they encounter in their practices. If such courses do not exist in medical schools other than DMU, where are doctors going to learn how to talk with and understand the many, many patients they will have who suffer with anxiety, depression, mania, anorexia, and the dozens of other diagnoses?

In some communities, first responders such as police and EMS workers are beginning to have mental health practitioners go on “ride-alongs” to help educate emergency personnel on how to handle situations involving the mentally distressed. Classes like the one at DMU (if others existed) could benefit from having students “ride along,” doing internships or rotations with established doctors who treat the physical as well as the mental symptoms of their patients. Perhaps psychiatric rotations in medical schools could include student practice in community or campus mental health centers instead of just locked wards. Perhaps medical schools could involve students in role-plays involving speaking with and treating the mentally ill, the way they sometimes do for prospective doctors’ encounters with terminal patients.

With NAMI reporting that 1 in 5 U.S. adults – 20% – experience mental illness each year and that
1 in 25 U.S. adults – 4% – experience serious mental illness each year, the odds are overwhelming that future doctors will need to learn how to treat patients both physically and mentally, as well as simply on a human level.

Here’s hoping that the DMU model class idea spreads – and that medical school education on mental health someday will be covered more thoroughly than a single class and a visit to the locked ward.

 

Reference:

DMU Becomes First Medical School to Require Mental Health Course for Students

On Stigma Fighting and Political Advocacy

Lately, I’ve noticed a trend in mental health circles. It’s a question of philosophy on some levels. What should we, as people concerned about mental health, mental illness, and society, be doing with our time and energy?

The two choices boil down to fighting stigma and political advocacy. They each have their motivation and their adherents.

The stigma fighters (including the organization Stigma Fighters) maintain that the way to make things better for the mentally ill is to erase the stigma that surrounds mental illness (particularly serious mental illness, or SMI). And there’s no doubt that there is stigma. The mentally ill are feared and blamed for violence in society. They do not get jobs or lose jobs because of their conditions. They hesitate to enter treatment for fear that friends or family will find out.

While mental illness is no longer the “secret family shame” that led to family members being “put away quietly,” kept locked in the attic, and never mentioned, many families do still find that mental illness – in themselves or their loved ones – is something to hide. Something not to discuss in polite company. Something to ignore the existence of.

People who fight stigma usually do so with information and education. Celebrities – even the British royal family – speak openly about conditions such as bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, OCD, and other of the more common diagnoses. You undoubtedly have heard the PSAs on television that explain that mental health is important and that seeking treatment is not something to be ashamed of.

Are the stigma fighters making a dent in the stigma? It’s hard to say. At least they seem to have opened a conversation about mental health, mental illness, treatments including medications, mental illness among men, suicide, and other problems we face.

Still, the political advocates say, all that stigma fighting has done nothing to increase the number of psychiatric beds available or the number of psychologists caring for rural populations, the homeless, or people with schizophrenia and other psychoses that are foreign to most people’s experience. What we need are people who will bring up these and other issues with legislators and influencers at the local, state, and national levels; who will present proposals that may do some good in increasing access and funding; and who will advocate for improvements such as training for first responders in how to address mental health concerns.

And it’s true. All these things – and more – are needed. We may debate the wisdom of involuntary commitment or compulsory medication, but they are certainly topics that need to be explored if a consensus is ever to be reached. Most people in the mental health community admit that the system is broken and needs to be fixed – or possibly re-thought from the ground up.

Where do I stand on this debate? I feel that one or the other is not enough. It’s not an either/or situation. It seems to me that unless there is some real progress made in fighting stigma, the voting public and the legislators will not understand the realities of mental illness, the need for change, and what needs to be done to fix the system. Unless we engage in spreading information and changing people’s minds about what being mentally ill means, support for policy changes will be thin on the ground. And unless we come up with some solutions that people understand and support, nothing will change.

Myself, I work mostly in the stigma fighting camp. I don’t have the political acumen, contacts, and energy that real activism takes. I know it is vitally important, but it is not something I can do very much or very well.

What I can do, through my blogs and my books, is help with the information and education, spreading the word about mental health and mental illness, and helping alleviate the stigma that accompanies them. I also intend to start looking for opportunities in my writing to comment on the larger societal issues and proposed solutions and help with education about them as well.

To solve the problems surrounding mental illness, we must all do what we can, and what we do best.

Does Immorality Cause Mental Illness?

Aaand…we have a new contender for what causes mental illness.  According to U.S. Attorney General William Barr, it’s a breakdown in Judeo-Christian morality. In fact, he blames a lot of woes on what he calls “secularism”:

Along with the wreckage of the family, we are seeing record levels of depression and mental illness, dispirited young people, soaring suicide rates, increasing numbers of angry and alienated young males, an increase in senseless violence and a deadly drug epidemic.”

Let’s look at that for a minute. Immorality causes wrecked families, depression and mental illness, suicide, violence, and drug epidemics. Lack of religion – or at least the proper Judeo-Christian one – brings on everything but the zombie apocalypse.

Steve Benen, writing for MSNBC, points out the flaws:

For one thing, it’s factually wrong. There are complex factors that contribute to problems such as drug abuse, gun violence, mental illness, and suicide, but to assume these issues would disappear in a more religious society is absurd. There are plenty of Western societies, for example, that are far more secular than the United States, and many of them are in better positions on these same social ills.

http://www.msnbc.com/rachel-maddow-show/ag-barr-blames-moral-upheaval-conspiring-us-secularists

Plus, Barr’s theory would have you believe that in the most religious places in the United States, such ills should not occur. Sadly, we have learned that no community is exempt from these tragedies. And it completely ignores the fact that many mass shooters and bombers cite the Bible as justification for their horrendous crimes.

Ah, but you say, those crimes are attributable to mental illness, which, as Barr tells us, is a product of the breakdown of moral values. It’s a simple equation to him: Immorality leads to mental illness leads to an increase in senseless violence. (As opposed to sensible violence, I suppose.)

And that’s where this slippery slope gets dangerous for those of us who have mental illnesses. Not only are we stigmatized by being blamed for mass violence, we are stigmatized by “ignoring” the cure for our disorders – adherence to the right religious values. (I think it’s fair to assume that Buddhist, Islamic, Baha’i, or Shinto religious values don’t count. In fact, to some religious people, such beliefs are tantamount to mental illness themselves.)

If mental illnesses can be cured by inculcating appropriate religious values, why are we spending so much money on psychologists and psychiatrists, medications, and hospital beds? According to Barr’s theory, that money would be better spent on religious indoctrination, especially for young people. There are many, especially in the halls of power, who agree with him.

You’d think that with the crumbling of the “pray away the gay” philosophy, these people would be hesitant to attempt changing someone’s internal constitution and thought processes simply through the exercise of religion.

Make no mistake, it’s an exercise that is doomed to failure. God does not miraculously grant the right balance of neurotransmitters to the faithful. He does not prevent or cure schizophrenia in those who pray to Him. He does not see to it that tendencies to mental disorders are not handed down through the generations in godly families. Mental illness can strike anyone and does afflict one in four people at some time in their lives. Surely that 25% of people are not all secularists. Just because people with mental disorders are sometimes shunned by faith communities (and that does happen) doesn’t mean that they aren’t religious enough.

Morality is not just for the mentally healthy and mental illness is not just for the immoral. If we let this absurd statement go unchallenged, we are setting ourselves up for more stigma, less funding, less freedom, less choice, and less dignity. If we make sure to oppose this dangerous notion whenever we encounter it, we are doing ourselves, our families and friends, and our nation a service. Educating people about mental illness may begin at home, but it needs to spread to society at large or we will be bombarded by more of these ridiculous, dangerous theories.

Should You Lie About Your Disorder?

We all know that when writing a resume, you should write either “good” or “excellent” when you refer to your health. Any other response will make it certain that your resume will be headed straight for the circular file.
But what about your mental health? Most resumes and most job applications don’t include a space for that, but what if they did? What would you answer? What should you answer? And should you tell the truth if you do answer?
 
In one corner of England, job seekers were encouraged to hedge their bets or to flat-out lie. The British newspaper The Guardian reported that welfare personnel “have urged jobseekers who have depression to hide their diagnosis and only admit on work applications that they are experiencing ‘low mood.'” 
 
Fortunately, there has been a backlash from mental health organizations, who describe the advice as an “outrage” likely to increase stigma. They point out that “the law provided protection to disabled people, including those with mental health problems, if their disability has a substantial, adverse, and long-term effect on normal daily activities.”
 
The welfare department in question brushed off the controversy by saying the suggestion was only “well-intentioned local advice” and encouraging people seeking jobs to “speak freely about a health condition or disability.” But that’s not a choice that everyone is willing to make.
 
Whether or not to disclose one’s mental health condition when applying for a job is not an easy decision. American law (at the moment) protects employees and potential employees under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But many people are rightly suspicious that disclosing a mental illness at the application is a one-way ticket to unemployment. Even when applications invite you to disclose and pointedly proclaim that they abide by EEOC regulations, many people choose not to disclose.
 
Disclosing after you’ve been hired or have been working at a place for a while is another matter. Many people (including me) have lost jobs because their bosses and coworkers don’t understand mental illness. There is plenty of motivation never to mention it.
 
That may not always be possible, however. Sometimes, the symptoms of bipolar disorder or another serious mental illness are obvious and negatively affect work. (I’m included here, too.) If a person isn’t able to do the work – for whatever reason – it’s understandable that they will be let go.
 
That brings us to the subject of accommodations that permit a person to do the work. Under ADA law, persons with disabilities, including mental disorders, are to be given “reasonable accommodations” to help them perform their job duties. For blind, deaf, or mobility-impaired workers, these accommodations are obviously necessary and most employers can and will provide them. (There is also no question as to whether to disclose these disabilities or not. Visible disabilities are more widely understood than invisible ones.)
 
Accommodations for mental disorders need not be difficult, either. Solutions such as flextime, work-at-home situations, or time off for appointments are more and more being offered to all employees, regardless of ability level, and these can certainly help people with mental illness, too. Other reasonable accommodations might include flexible break times, an office with a door or full-spectrum lighting, or the understanding that phone calls and emails need not be returned instantly. Of course, to receive these accommodations, one must disclose the disorder and negotiate the possible solutions, which can certainly be daunting, if not impossible, for those with anxiety disorders, for example.
 
But what we’re talking about here is not whether to disclose a disability on an application or to an employer. What we are talking about is misrepresenting a potentially disabling condition – or to use the less polite term, lying about it. I don’t have “occasional mood swings,” I have bipolar disorder. My depression is not simply a “low mood,” it can be debilitating. And I suspect that even admitting to a “low mood” might be greeted with something less than understanding by a potential or actual employer.
 
Ayaz Manji, a senior policy officer at a mental health charity in England, said of the semi-disclosure policy, “Anyone who discloses a mental health problem at work deserves to be treated with respect, and jobcentres should not be reinforcing stigma by advising people not to disclose.”
 
He’s right, of course. Disclosing or not disclosing is a hard enough choice for the mentally ill. Lying about one’s condition should not even be a consideration. And isn’t lying on resumes and applications an automatic cause for dismissal? 
 
For more information:

Children’s Bodies, Children’s Minds

I read recently that the Duchess of Cambridge was visiting a series of schools to mark Children’s Mental Health Week. The duchess is the royal patron of Place2Be, a children’s mental health charity. The article said that this year’s theme for Mental Health Week would be “Healthy: Inside and Out, focusing on the connection between physical and mental health.”

The article explained, “The charity works with more than 280 primary and secondary schools across England, Scotland and Wales, providing support and expert training to improve the emotional wellbeing of pupils, families, teachers and school staff.” 

The duchess, it says, would be meeting with members of the school community to discuss students’ school readiness, teacher welfare, the wellbeing of the school community, and the importance of being active; and also talk with parents about good routines and habits around sleep, screen time, healthy eating, and exercise.

All of which sounds fine and worthy. But does anyone else see something missing from this public relations tour? Maybe it’s just me, but there doesn’t seem to be much actual emphasis on children’s mental health.

Yes, we know that the body and the mind are intimately connected. Yes, we know that children need a sense of wellbeing. Yes, we know that being active and eating healthy are important for kids. And we know that parents, teachers, and school communities have important roles to play in students’ healthy development. We also know that sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are good for people with mental illnesses. Hell, they’re good for everyone.

But there’s a lot more to mental health than physical fitness and a sense of wellbeing. If that was all it took, we could just eat kale and kiwis, meditate, and send the therapists home.

Of course, the article was short and seemed to focus on the duchess’s meetings with the youngest kids, who after all the most photogenic. Maybe the charity and the duchess also educate about the thornier aspects of mental health. Maybe they promote dialogue about self-harm, suicide prevention, childhood depression, and other conditions. I would like to think that they do.

But the article and many others like it focus on the physical and feel-good aspects of mental health and not the mental and emotional. Bubble baths for self-care! Pets as the best therapists! Super foods for regulating moods!

Memes are not the answer. And the physical aspects of mental health are certainly important. But we’re talking about mental illness and mood disorders here. Can’t we at least spend time talking about the mind and the emotions?  Maybe even have a dialogue about what happens when something goes wrong with them? Stress the importance of seeking help when one is confused, overwhelmed, and despairing?

I think society at large is still uncomfortable talking about mental illness and twice as uncomfortable talking about mental illness in children. Many of us are still laboring under the illusion that childhood is a uniformly happy time. In fact, many kids suffer from serious mental illnesses. If the statistics give any indication, 20% to 25% of them will experience a mental health problem at some time in their lives.

We should talk about this and ultimately do something about it. Something more than emphasizing good physical health and getting celebrities to do 30-second spots about how they too experience depression, though these are indeed good things.

I’ve written before about what I think a mental health curriculum in schools should look like (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Jw, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Hl). I suppose that first we need to be aware that children can and do have mental health problems – that it may not be “just a phase they’re going through” or something they’ll “just get over.” It’s a serious problem and requires serious attention, not to mention serious actions.

Whatever else we do, let’s put the mental back into mental health.

 

 

The One Pill I’m Embarrassed About Taking

I know that there are lots of people – and not just the bipolar ones – who don’t like taking medication and especially don’t like needing to take them. It’s a reminder of their illness, I guess, or a dependence on a chemical answer when we’ve been told for so long, “Just say no to drugs” and indoctrinated by DARE. The only thing they leave out is that some drugs are good for you – the prescribed ones that allow you to live and function.

I don’t mind my psychotropic medications. In fact, in many ways I love them. They are the things that keep me relatively stable, on a mostly even keel, and make sure that none of my mood swings lasts more than a couple of days. I loathe pill shaming and consider it just one more kind of stigma that attaches to mental illness (and other chronic illnesses).

But there is one medication I take every day that gives me pause. It is my sleeping pill. My psychiatrist prescribes them and I take one every night, along with my other nighttime pills. In about 20 minutes to an hour, I’m asleep, and I stay asleep usually until 8:00 a.m. or so. It means I get about eight or nine hours of uninterrupted sleep per night.

I do need that sleep. I’m not one of those people who can function on four or five hours of sleep, the way tech geniuses and high-powered execs claim they can. If I don’t get my eight hours – and sometimes even if I do – I take naps during the day. Not just naps: mega-naps. My brain and body sneer at 20-minute catnaps. If I’m going to sleep, they say, it must be an hour at a minimum. Two is even better.

It’s not like I want to go back to the days before the sleeping pills, either. I do still remember the long nights of fear and sorrow, the fits of crying, the panicky sensation of not being able to breathe. The endless mental replay of every stupid thing I’ve ever done. The anticipation of the disasters the next day would bring. The hopelessness and the helplessness and the loneliness. The feeling that I was the only being awake, maybe in the world. If a single little pill can save me from all that, I should be glad to take it.

Why, then, does it bother me?

Perhaps it’s because it doesn’t feel necessary in the way my psychotropics do. They are prescribed for my bipolar condition and somehow make the difference in how my neurotransmitters operate. The sleeping pill feels like a different category of drugs.

Or perhaps it is because sleeping pills are often a drug of abuse and even suicide. My psychiatrist trusts me with them, though, and has for years. Plus, my anti-anxiety med is also often abused and I feel no guilt about taking that.

Maybe it’s because a sleeping pill feels in some way like a luxury. I don’t think it does anything specific for my bipolar disorder – except that sleepless nights are certainly associated with depression and my middle-of-the-night anxiety as well.

I hate to think it, but maybe the pill-shamers have gotten to me. I take such a cocktail of assorted psychotropics that it’s perhaps natural I should ask myself every now and then if I’m overmedicated (my doctor doesn’t seem to think so) and whether I could do without any of the drugs. The sleeping pill is the only one that might be in that category.

But no. I don’t want to go back to the nights of distress, despair, and devastation. I don’t want to wake my husband up as I gasp for breath and need him to stroke my hair until I fall asleep. And I surely don’t want to go through those bad feelings all alone in the night while he works the third shift.

All in all, I think the sleeping pill is a good thing for me and that I shouldn’t try to give it up. I just wish I didn’t feel so ambivalent about it.

 

 

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