June 19, 2018
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Basic study of mental illness is imperative

By Sarah H. Clark, Special to the BDN

Back study of mental illnesses

Viewing Dr. Stephanie Lash’s photo in “A light in the darkness” (BDN, June 2) was heart-wrenching. Grief, pain, a search for understanding, and a determination to arrest the paradigm of depression leading to suicide: All are etched into her face and hand as she contemplates and openly talks about the suicide of her husband, Dr. John West. Dr. Lash, bravely and with passion, calls for a greater awareness of mental illnesses among us and a plea for the afflicted to seek treatment.

Evidence of mental illness surrounds us. Who of us does not know or frequently hear of a friend, colleague, neighbor, even a relative, who experiences more severe symptoms than “blues” precipitated by a rainy summer day or bleak winter sky we Mainers resignedly accept? Yet, since we cannot see mental disorders in the same way we notice the hair loss of a breast cancer patient, the shakiness of someone with a neurological illness, or the deformity of an arthritic body, we often are unaware, and sometimes even avoid, the person whose behavior is different from “normal.”

My experience has taught me that awareness and treatment of mental health disorders is just the beginning, albeit crucial to the process of societal acceptance, of the arduous task ahead if we are to prevent the tragedy that beset Dr. West. Awareness, demythologizing and treatment of mental illnesses are not enough; basic, hard-core scientific research is fundamental and imperative.

Diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 1990, I spent many hours at Acadia Hospital’s outpatient clinic watching faces exhibiting despair, bewilderment, confusion, sadness, even bizarreness. All of us, from financially secure and insured to poor, homeless and destitute folks, from highly educated to illiterate males and females, held high hopes that treatment would end our mental misery.

I can attest that after 20 years of being treated with 15 or more antidepressants, I still experience three months of depression and three months of hypomania every year. I understand and mourn Dr. West’s final decision to end his life.

While candidates for Maine’s governor promise job creation in Maine, can we couple that need with development of mental health research right here in our state?

How do we persuade qualified grant writers at our fine private Maine colleges, the University of Maine and Jackson Laboratory to seek funding for and initiate the kind of scientific research needed to discover and identify the causes of mental disorders listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association: bipolar, depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse, to name a few?

How do we capture federal funds for mental health research? Can Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and our two House representatives assist us?

How do we motivate large corporations, such as biotech and pharmaceuticals firms, to award grants for mental health research as significant as those profits distributed to investors and stockholders?

How do we invigorate our fellow Mainers to create local and state fundraisers equivalent to the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure of breast cancer or comparable to the American Heart Association’s Northeastern Maine Heart Ball? Stephanie Lash will walk the “Out of the Darkness Overnight” for suicide awareness in Boston. Can we mobilize our friends, colleagues, neighbor and relatives to advocate and work for all research on mental illness, starting here in Maine?

I would love to walk next to Stephanie in Boston on June 26-27. Unfortunately I am unable: my psoriatic arthritis, precipitated by one of my early anti-depressants, lithium, resulted in joint degeneration including bilateral knee and hip replacements. In my opinion, treatment for many mental health disorders still is sadly in its adolescence. Scientific research is crucial to changing lives and preventing tragedies.

I will accompany Stephanie and thousands of others in spirit as they walk; you are courageous, and your determination is contagious.

Sarah M. Clark, a summer resident of Holden, is a retired adjunct English instructor from University College of Bangor, Bangor Theological Seminary and University of Arizona Extended


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