By KATIE HOOS
Although an estimated 61.5 million American adults—or 26 percent—suffer from diagnosed mental illnesses in a given year, the issue of mental health remains clouded by stigma, discrimination and misunderstanding, oftentimes leaving sufferers to bear it alone.
Mental illness is defined as a medical condition that disrupts a person’s mood, feelings, thinking, ability to interact with others and daily function. Serious mental illnesses, including major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia affect 13.6 million American adults. Among those Americans diagnosed with mental illness, nearly 60 percent of adults do not receive treatment.
“As a writer, writing is my automatic weapon against pain. I wrote this to keep from dying.”
-WAITHIRA MBUTHIA-PROTANO, on how her poetry book helped her deal with her daughter’s suicide
“People are afraid of things they don’t understand,” Eaton said. “Mental illness is not looked at the same way as a physical illness due to a lack of education. The media tends to portray people with mental illness wrongly, like with the Newtown tragedy and other horrible tragedies that have occurred. People associate that behavior as the norm for those with mental illness, but that’s not the case.”
Mental health disorders are often portrayed as a character flaw or personal weakness, when, in actuality, many scientists, including psychiatrist Dr. Abby Wasserman, clinical director of the Crisis Prevention and Response Team, argue mental illness has a biological and neurological basis.
“It has to do with neurotransmitters throughout the body and in the brain,” Wasserman said. “Every behavior, everything we do, has an organic basis.”
Despite the biological origin, the societal stigma that the mentally ill should be feared still persists and can bring shame to such persons and their families, impacting the effectiveness of treatment and even influencing the decision to seek treatment. Without effective treatment, the mentally ill can develop substance abuse problems and engage in other harmful behaviors to cope with their symptoms, according to the American Psychiatrict Association.
Waithira Mbuthia-Protano, a New Rochelle resident, experienced first hand the stigma associated with mental illness, raising a daughter who suffered from bipolar disorder. Mbuthia-Protano’s daughter, Njeri Karanja, ended her life on Nov. 22, 2004, after a battle with her illness. She was 27.
“When I arrived at the hospital and heard those words, I remember throwing myself on the ground; but I think I flew,” Mbuthia-Protano said of learning her daughter was dead. “I remember hitting the floor.”
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an organization dedicated to the education and advocacy for mental illness, suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the U.S. and more than 90 percent of those who committed suicide had one or more mental disorders. Substance abuse and addiction are associated with an increased risk of suicide.
“She was such a good person, my daughter, and she suffered so much. But there was so much shame and we didn’t know anything about the disease at all,” Mbuthia-Protano said. “We suffered alone and in private and that’s the biggest danger.”
As a coping mechanism, Mbuthia-Protano, a Kenyan-born writer and former teacher in the New York City and Westchester County school systems, wrote a book of poetry, “Requiem for Njeri,” that details the frustration of a grieving mother dealing with the loss of her child.
“I needed to exercise the pain,” Mbuthia-Protano said. “As a writer, writing is my automatic weapon against pain. I wrote this to keep from dying.”
“Requiem for Njeri” includes 34 poems Mbuthia-Protano composed in the eight years following her daughter’s death, as well as an accompanying CD, “Songs of Mourning and Remembrance,” composed by Dr. George Groth, which puts Mbuthia-Protano’s words on her daughter to music.
Hoping to not only provide solace for herself, Mbuthia-Protano said she wrote the book to help others struggling with mental illness and help erase the stigma associated with mental diseases. Since the book’s release, Mbuthia-Protano said she has received countless emails and comments from people expressing their gratitude for bringing awareness to bipolar disorder and thanking her for shedding light on the normally closeted topic.
“[Njeri] did not just up and quit,” she said. “Bipolar claimed her life.”
A crucial part of eradicating the stigma surrounding mental illness, treatment of the mentally ill and how these diseases are handled is at the forefront.
According to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 55 percent of the nation’s 3,100 counties have no practicing social workers, psychologists or psychiatrists, due to doctors reaching retirement age, medical school students choosing other medical specialties, and budget cuts to national mental health coverage. Nationwide, since 2008, states have cut mental health care funding by $4.5 billion.
The areas that do have mental health professionals are so inundated with patients that they are often selective with insurances, declining private insurance companies and not seeing new patients.
“Access to care is a big reason why people go untreated,” Eaton said. “Mental health care is not treated the same way as physical care, including in the eyes of insurance companies. There’s a big push out there to change that now.”
By improving the health care system to make treatment more readily available to those with mental illness, more mentally ill people will have access to treatment that will enhance their quality of life. Mbuthia-Protano asserted that the more the topic of mental illness is discussed, the more lives will be saved.
“My daughter did not have to die,” she said. “And I want people who read my book to know there is no need to be ashamed; there is no need to hide.”