Why is mental illness different from all other illnesses?
1) For with all other illnesses, when you hear someone is hospitalized, you visit, call or offer support. While with mental illnesses, if you hear someone is hospitalized, you pretend you didn’t hear and avoid the person for fear of not knowing what to say.
I recall a patient I had early in residency who lamented how nice it was to have recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer. I was taken aback and thought she must have completely lost her mind. She explained, “I have suffered a life of severe depression, being hospitalized many times. This is the first time in my life people have reached out to me and offered support.”
2) For with all other illnesses, it is understood that one should violate Shabbos and Yom Tov to save a life. While with alcoholism, people are shocked to hear it may be permissible to drive to an AA meeting or call a sponsor on Shabbos. These are potentially life-saving treatments for alcoholism and have been shown to decrease relapse rates.
Many do not realize the severe hold addiction has on a person. In a moment’s time, they could relapse after decades of fighting the illness. Considering alcoholism decreases a person’s life expectancy by greater than a decade, it is certainly no less life threatening than diabetes or other illnesses for which we routinely override Shabbos.
3) For with all other illnesses, you can ask your friends and colleagues for a referral to the best clinician. While with mental illness, the best shot you have of finding someone good is to do a Google search in the privacy of your home.
How often is it that people are afraid to share the mental illness they have and ask for help? Even as a doctor, sworn by confidentiality, I am a first-hand witness to this stigma. When I was in medical school, rotating through different specialties, people from the community were always excited to see me in the hospital and eager to seek my advice. However, if an Orthodox patient saw me in a psychiatric encounter, they would refuse care from me or at the very least avoid me once they were discharged. They were scared to have a relationship with me for fear word would get out about their illness.
4) For with all other illnesses, teachers express sympathy. While with ADHD, many educators lose their patience and don’t know how to handle the student.
Yeah, it’s hard. They disrupt the class and don’t listen to instructions. But how would you treat a physically disabled kid even if it completely disrupts the regular flow?
What questions would you add? How have you experienced a difference between the treatment of mental illnesses and all other illnesses?