It’s rare that a near-victim of suicide publicly discloses the thoughts and sensations that accompanied that dark, bleak moment. The BDN’s recent story in which a woman — not identified by name — recounted her leap into the frigid Penobscot River from a bridge in Bangor and subsequent rescue inspires reflection on a host of issues. They include the unspoken, unexplored nature of suicide and the slow advances in treating mental illness.
The glib take on suicide is that it is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. This often holds true for young men who are suicide victims — a girlfriend leaves them, they run afoul of the law or fail out of school. The message to these young men must be that life gets better. And it does; as they mature, they find their niche in the world socially, employmentwise and so on. The impulsive tendency to seek a violent response to bad times abates.
But the near-victim in our story was not a young man. And her actions were not an impulsive response to a short-term crisis. She suffers from mental illness. And that points to another troubling problem: Mental illness treatment may still be in its infancy.
If a friend is struck by a car in the grocery store parking lot and X-rays show a broken leg, the emergency department physician doesn’t say, “Maybe you should put some ice on it.” There are accepted, proven treatments for such problems. With mental illness — whether it’s schizophrenia, depression, anxiety or bipolar disorder — pharmaceutical treatments are often hit-or-miss.
Five hundred years ago, some medical conditions were treated by the drawing of blood with leeches; just 50 years ago, some mental illnesses were treated with something as crude and experimental as the lobotomy. The hope is that 50 years from now, the person diagnosed with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder will have access to medication that holds the illness at bay as effectively as antibiotics turn back infections.
In the story, “Charlotte” recounts a bad day at the hospital after the attempt in which she swears at staff. When she apologized later, the staff told her not to worry about the outburst; she’s ill and being treated. That same acceptance of the symptoms of mental illness is not shared by the general public.
Too often, we expect people suffering with the mental illness to “pull themselves together.” That’s like telling the friend with a broken leg to “walk it off.” Providing effective treatment will not come cheap. But policymakers should think of people like “Charlotte” when they cut mental health services.