Thursday, April 1, 2010

Where I Stand

Where I Stand, An Editorial
By Charles M. Sakai

You may be wondering, how can someone who’s a political conservative and can talk about the need for a strong defense all day long be a mental health advocate?

The explanation is quite simple: I am, above all, a pragmatist, more interested in what works than in any particular ideology. Both depression and bipolar disorder run in my family, and I myself have survived the agony and isolation of depressive episodes that lasted weeks or months at a time. That leaves two possibilities: I can either deny that there is anything wrong, meaning that those of my relatives who suffered and died because of these disorders did so in vain – or I can ask myself, “What lesson can we learn from our experience?” and try to make life better for people in similar situations as well as myself.

The fiscal conservative in me rankles at the waste of resources one finds whenever mental illness is criminalized. It takes more money to feed, clothe, guard, and medicate ONE inmate with a mental disorder than it does to fund the operations of DBSA [Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance] Colorado Springs for an entire year! And yet we have the potential to bless hundreds, even thousands of lives, so our operation is highly cost-effective.

I am not yoked to any single school of thought when it comes to treating mental illness. Unlike Freud, I don’t think it’s all about sex, and don’t always see the need to pry into the deep, dark secrets of an individual in order to help him or her. I do believe in treating the whole person, not the symptom, and that one must look at the patient as a human being with a genetic heritage, unique life experiences (usually of the dysfunctional variety), capacity for spiritual regeneration, and a propensity to suffer from chemical imbalances and/or defects in brain structure. I see a lot of merit in holistic medicine, as there is a definite mind-body connection that has been arbitrarily dismembered by traditional western medicine. So whatever works is fine with me.

My faith has instilled in me a strong sense of stewardship, not only for obvious responsibilities such as work, family, and friends, but also for the well-being of society. When I see someone who is poor, homeless, and struggling, my first impulse is to lend a helping hand rather than a kick in the teeth, thinking, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m convinced that we are obligated to help people who are less fortunate than ourselves, and will be accountable to our Maker for any sins of omission.

On the other hand, I am skeptical of government programs. Even when they’re well-funded, they have a one-size-fits-all mentality and lack the flexibility to respond to individual needs. Any program that promotes dependency rather than self-reliance is bad for the patient. Furthermore, it is the nature of government programs to perpetuate themselves and grow indefinitely, unless action is taken to prune away the excess. And we all know that politicians are fickle, more interested in which direction the winds of public opinion are blowing than in providing support and direction to the cause of mental health for all. It will not do for these programs to go through alternating periods of feast or famine, because the problem of mental illness is with us every day!

It should come as no surprise that I am friendly to therapies and programs that encourage people to become independent, contributing members of society. But if there is no other way, I will urge people who need government assistance to persevere in applying for SSI/SSDI and medical coverage from Social Security, as they usually decline applications the first time around, no matter how impressive the documentation, to discourage parasites trying to game the system. Sometimes one may need to call in a lawyer to expedite the process

There is much we can do as individuals to further the cause. The basic building block of progress is strengthening the family. A history of abuse and lack of coping skills are common denominators for many “mental” cases. Also, a thorough physical is a standard procedure in any well-run hospital; your mental problem may not be all “in your head,” and could well have a physical cause. Be prepared to educate all those who are willing to hear and enlist their cooperation in your own recovery. I know, this is easier said than done, but this has to be our starting point. We also need to continue teaching, encouraging, and empowering individuals to where they can start rebuilding their lives. A greater challenge is educating members of the news media and even the medical field, as they are usually the ones with the most entrenched prejudices against people with mental disorders. It may sound like a harsh judgment to charge them with perpetuating the stigma against mental illness, but they hold the keys to changing public perceptions, and I have not heard them turning in our behalf.

Although I accept the wisdom of DBSA choosing to limit its involvement in the political process (leaving advocacy mainly to NAMI and other organizations), we can still act as individuals. So much attention has been paid to bad politics, corruption, and general sleaziness that we often forget that there is a positive side. By getting involved, we can see to it that the strong do not prey on the weak, and that our elected officials do not sell themselves to the highest bidder. These two undesirable situations seem to be the default position whenever the public slips into apathy.

Politics is a craft like any other. Regardless of what party you’re affiliated with, there are certain things that need to be done: literature to be written, printed, and distributed, hands to shake, people to meet, and relationships to be established. Above all, we must always be aware of the needs, dreams, and aspirations of the public. Before we can run candidates for elective office who are willing to promote our cause, we should populate the political parties with foot-soldiers who mingle with so-called “normal” party members and convince them that we can be contributing members of society.

Grassroots, letter-writing campaigns are another way to get the attention of office-holders. As long as each letter is individually written (politicians have gotten wise to generic, computer-generated letters or e-mails) they are justified in believing that for each person who takes the trouble to write, there are many others who are in agreement, but didn’t get around to putting their thoughts on paper.

The choice is clear: we can either keep spinning our wheels, and leave our fate to the decisions of people who lack understanding – or we can seize destiny by the neck and fight for the dignity, respect, and opportunity that are rightfully ours. We have the talent and organizational ability – what we need is the will and energy to sustain this effort.

(This essay was originally written for a conservative publication in May 2007, but is not partisan.)

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