Saturday, February 28, 2009

I wanted to share with you yet another story of suicide. I plan to post more about suicide because this topic is often subject to intense scrutiny and judgement. This judgment may be based on someone's inability to understand suicide. 

My husband told me about a movie we simply had to watch called "Control" (trailer seen here). All I knew was that the film depicted Joy Division's rise to fame. The band, formed in 1976, has influenced many former and current musical artists. I personally LOVE Joy Division's music/sound and encourage others to listen. 
"Control", told from the lead singer's point of view, follows Ian Curtis who evidently suffered from depression and epilepsy. His struggles with depression were fueled by a deteriorating marriage. He married quite young. He frequently suffered from seizures, even while on stage. "Curtis's writing was filled with imagery of emotional isolation, death, alienation, and urban decay. He once commented in an interview that he wrote about "the different ways different people can cope with certain problems, how they might or might not adapt"." This is clearly a statement which illustrates his own struggle to cope. 

It's important to point out that Ian's wife, Debrah, had discovered he was having an affair while on tour with his band. He had traveled home to persuade his wife to drop the divorce suit but was unsuccessful. Ian then told his wife to leave him alone in their house until the following day. She later discovered her husband had hung himself in their kitchen. After his death, Ian's bandmates confessed, "I think all of us made the mistake of not thinking his suicide was going to happen. We all completely underestimated the danger. We didn't take it seriously. That's how stupid we were." There were obvious red flags that both Debrah and the band were aware of. However, no one can ever predict if suicide will happen or not. If someone is determined, he/she may never confess thoughts of suicide. 

It is thought that Ian's depression intensified when he failed to balance his marriage with his musical career. He was also failing to cope with his epilepsy (he had violent seizures and was taking medicine). Annik HonerĂ©, who Ian had an affair with, was asked to comment on Joy Division's new album. She replied, "I'm terrified. Don't you understand? He means it." And I (the interviewer) go, "No, he doesn't mean it - it's art. And guess what? He fucking meant it." 

When someone dies from suicide, others may question whether or not they could have prevented it. Family and friends will wonder why their loved one chose to end his/her life. This search for an answer makes it very difficult to find closure. It can be hard to accept that someone was lost due to mental illness or intense emotional turmoil. We can accept that every instance of suicide is never the same and is very personal. When someone dies from a different disease (cancer, stroke, heart attack), people tend to mourn much differently. These types of death appear to be inevitable and out of the person's control. Suicide leaves most puzzled because there is this need to understand a person's choice to end the pain. Some may blame a person for choosing suicide. But can we blame someone for the mental disorder that caused suicide? No! Suicide is a coping mechanism that some may feel is the only way to escape. 

As with any death, suicide requires empathy/understanding, not judgement/criticism. Many family's will deny that suicide was a cause of death. They may say, "it was an accident" or never talk about their lost loved one because the shame is too great to bear. Shame, which at one time engrossed their loved one, can be adopted by a family. Some may even live with this shame/burden for their rest of their lives. In turn, a family will never mourn properly. In some cases these feelings can lead to depression. At times, I believe I may be suffering with a slight case of depression but I try to acknowledge that these feelings will come and go. I just try to cope in a healthy manner. 

Suicide may never be preventable but we can stop judging those who die from it. Mental illness is very real and suicide is the leading cause of death (with this illness). Some may think that suicide is a choice but mental illness, clearly, is not.  

This post may not be based on fact, but I do speak from experience. With suicide, there is no text book to guide you, only human emotion. Thanks for putting up with my strong opinions:)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

My mom just informed me that my brother will be admitted to a county hospital for long term care. I really think he will benefit from a long term stay because he still doesn't admit that he has schizophrenia. I believe he will start to put the pieces together and realize that the medicine allows him to think clearly. It's such a long road but he is strong and has a supportive family behind him.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

I am so excited that "The Soloist" will be hitting theaters soon. Not many movies portray mental illness in a positive light. I think this movie will inspire the public to form an accurate opinion of mental illness. Please visit "The Soloist" website to view the movie's trailer. I often ponder the connection between creativity and mental illness. This movie shows how a man can find peace through his creativity/music and find purpose through a friend. I hope to see more movies like this one in the future. I am reminded of how "A Beautiful Mind" was successful in humanizing schizophrenia. These movies are necessary if we want to erase stigma. Hollywood is notorious for sensationalizing and exploiting mental illness in order to sell tickets. In the end, these movies fuel prejudice, fear, shame...the list goes on. 

Does anyone have any thoughts on how to reach movie studios? I think they need to know when they are producing media that negatively affects those with a mental disorder. Stigma Busters might be a good place to start. I found a site called Media Matters. They aim to monitor and correct misinformation in the media. I commend their efforts, but was surprised to find that they don't even mention mental illness/stigma as an issue. I think I will contact them and see if they can address this issue. Maybe I will just picket the movie studios:) Just thoughts!!

Sunday, February 22, 2009

I would like to wish my brother Josh, a very happy birthday. He turns 26 today. He's currently in the hospital working towards recovery. I am very grateful for the moments of recovery I have been able to share with my brother. I look forward to more of them. I would also like to thank my parents for their undying support. Without them, I don't know where my brother would be. Miss you Josh!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

In preparation for my first exhibit, I had to create an hour long presentation for the NAMI conference. At first I was nervous about filling in an entire hour with information. However, I soon discovered that I could go on for hours. I found links between mental illness, creativity, the right side of the brain, art therapy and even stigma. I plan to use some of my research in an informative documentary (for educational purposes). A portion of my presentation shed light onto the topic of art therapy. One very famous artist who I feel a deep connection with is Edvard Munch. We both have the same muse. Empathy. We also have something else in common. We have a sibling with schizophrenia.
Edvard is most well known for his painting (seen above), The Scream. Painted in 1893, The Scream represents the anxiety of modern man. With this painting, Moonk met his stated goal of “the study of the soul, that is to say the study of my own self”. Moonk wrote of how the painting came to be: "I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black water. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.” He later described the personal anguish behind the painting, “for several years I was almost mad…You know my picture, ‘’The Scream?’’ I was stretched to the limit—nature was screaming in my blood… After that I gave up hope ever of being able to love again.”

Edvard was the second of five children (I also am the second of five children). He was only five years old when his mother died of tuberculosis. Nine years later, his oldest sister, Sophie died from the same illness. The loss of his sister affected Munch so much that she became a frequent theme in his work. His painting, The Sick Child (seen below), is an image of Sophie as she lay dying in bed. From this painting, you can sense the empathy one brother felt for his dying sister. When I saw this painting, I was reminded of how I felt when I painted, Psychosis (also seen below). Of all my paintings, this one means the most to me because it represents how I feel when I witness my brother's psychosis. I will never forget the blank look in his eyes as I tried to convince him that the bombs (he thought were about to land on us) were not real. This was the first time my family witnessed a psychosis of that intensity. 

We were in a hotel room, three hours from home and my parents did the only thing they felt was right. They drove three hours home at four in the morning (we stayed in a hotel because we were out of town for my oldest sister's wedding). About two hours into their trip, my brother convinced them to pull into a rest stop. He was convinced that my husband and I were in danger (we were still at the hotel) of being hit by a bomb. My brother proceeded to flee the car and run up the shoulder of the thruway only inches from moving cars. My father chased after him. It's amazing what adrenaline allowed my father to do. He caught up with my brother and remove his shoes. Just as someone was watching over my brother in Italy (when his first episode hit), someone gave my father the strength and quick thinking to save my brother from being hit by the cars traveling at 75 miles per hour. My parents went straight the hospital but were turned away because my brother popped a pill in his mouth. I still think my brother should have been allowed a long hospital stay. My parents felt helpless. I started to get used to these unthinkable stories. It's just part of the disease and you have no choice but to get used to it. Now, back to Munch.

Munch endured two more family tragedies. First his younger sister developed schizophrenia, then his brother Andreas died. Munch suffered a nervous breakdown (most likely triggered by constant, family tragedy) and was admitted to a clinic where he received electric shock treatment and spent several months recovering. His response to recovery: "I would not cast off my illness for there is much in my art that I owe to it." Some think his art lost its edge after he was released from the hospital. 

Edvard Munch's art allows us to understand how anxiety, loneliness and empathy can affect the human psyche. Before Edvard Munch passed away, he said," From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity." To many this may seem like a disturbing or morbid thing to say, but I think it shows how an individual can acknowledge his purpose in life. I hope this inspires others to leave their own impression. To me, life has no purpose if I lack passion. Art is my passion, voice and purpose. People ask me why am I always creating. I tell them that it is like a hunger and at times an obsession. Without it, I am not happy and now, I have found a way to use art as a tool (to educate). When words are sometimes ignored, art can speak volumes, without even saying a word. 

Friday, February 13, 2009

After all that has been going on with my brother, I have even more reason to fight stigma. One of the ways I plan to raise awareness in the future is by reaching students on the elementary, high school and college levels. Since there are so many misconceptions surrounding mental illness, I think that education is key. I learned so much about AIDS and drugs in the classroom. When AIDS became an epidemic, so many people were afraid of contracting the virus. Many thought that you could catch it from a kiss or even a touch. This of course was not the case but by educating others about the facts, we started to strip the stigma. I plan to eventually create a national campaign which would reach the public but for now, I will focus on creating educational programs. 

In a classroom setting, the mind is very open and students are just waiting to absorb information. They will take this education and apply it in real life situations. I hope to replace fear with empathy and shame with courage. I plan to incorporate my art exhibit, posters and much more information into a single DVD movie. Part of the lessen plan will involve discussion and possibly a written assignment. These are just ideas:) 

I was recently invited to join my local mental health board. This is a great opportunity for me to get involved in my community and connect with local school officials. Also, the board encourages my mission and said I should write a grant. I think it is healthy for me to funnel my frustrations into a positive goal. Well, I thought you might want to know how I am putting my skills to good use. Thank you for all of your support. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

One thing that really bothers me about the mental health system is how a loved one can only be admitted to the hospital if he or she is threat to his/herself or others (aren't we trying to prevent violence?). When you can not tell you are sick, you may only get treatment if you hurt someone, disrupt society or worse, attempt to end your life. This applies to many individuals during the early years of their illness. There have been times when my family felt that my brother needed to be admitted but the hospital turned him away. They said he wasn't a threat and that they can't force him to do something he doesn't want to do. I understand that an individual has to accept treatment in his/her own time, but this symptom we call "lack of insight" prevents treatment from happening. I wish there were more programs that would aid in one's recovery. Does it come down to money or stigma? I feel that these issues are continuously swept under the rug. My parents have heard time and time gain that the hospital's hands are tied. However, that seems like an excuse when I know certain doctors are willing to fight for a patient.

Since schizophrenia is a chronic/disabling illness, isn't that reason enough to improve care? As a family member, you get the feeling that your loved one could fall through the cracks at any moment. Lack of psychiatric care can even lead to suicide in some cases. I am not trying to say that the mental health system will fix everyone, but by improving the system, we may begin to see more cases of recovery.  

Sunday, February 1, 2009

A mother once emailed me, after viewing my exhibit, and told me that her son had died from suicide. She refused to say he "commit" suicide. She viewed her son's death as a direct result of his mental illness. I agree with her because my own brother has attempted suicide, thankfully he has not succeeded. These attempts were made in order to escape psychosis, the pain and a lower quality of life. This is sad since life can improve with the help of medicine, therapy and family support. Another woman I know (who lost her sister to suicide), was not allowed to talk about her feelings with her family. Her mother called it an accident. Her father never mentioned his deceased daughter's name again. Very sad.

Many view suicide as shameful act; unethical and immoral in most cultures. Lack of awareness and lack of empathy prevent our society from viewing suicide as a way to cope with severe and chronic illnesses. Death from cancer (for instance) is thought to be out of the person's control. Mental illness is also out of a person's control, yet we criticize those who die from suicide. When someone dies from cancer, he or she will be viewed as a victim. When someone dies from suicide, he or she usually dies feeling very alone. The individual is  viewed as a quitter, not a victim. Over ninety percent of people who die from suicide have a mental illness at the time of their death. This is reason enough to believe that suicide is sometimes the only way one can cope. I don't think we have the right to judge since we are not experiencing the intense emotional turnmoil that may trigger suicide. 

But can suicide be prevented? I have often asked myself this same question. I think that the more accepted mental illness becomes, the more open others will be to discussing their thoughts of suicide. Instead, those suffering feel as if their mental illness is their fault. (Side note, I am watching Jennifer Hudson sing the Star Spangled Banner at the start of the Super Bowl right now, just trying to hold back the tears :) If suicide is the direct result of untreated mental illness, then how can we improve the incidence of recovery? One reason why individuals will not seek treatment is due to stigma. This stigma can cause most to feel alone. You become unacceptable to society and as a result, begin to question your future. Education and awareness may cause others to embrace those with a mental disorder. It makes me sad to think that certain illnesses are acceptable over others. 

The individuals in the above image (from left to right) are: Donny Hathaway (recording artist, suffered from schizophrenia, died due to self-inflicted fall from a hotel window), Kurt Cobain (songwriter, guitarist for grunge band, Nirvana, battled possible manic depression and drug addiction, died from self-inflicted gun shot wound to the head), Vincent van Gogh (pioneer of Expressionism, suffered from mental illness, died to to self-inflicted gun shot wound), Elliott Smith (singer-songwriter and musician, battled depression, alcoholism and drug addiction, died from two stab wounds to the chest)