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The cycle of mental illness

My sister-in-law, a registered nurse, stole drugs from the hospital where she worked to feed her addiction. Alcohol also consumed her life. She attempted suicide at least three times and ended up in and out of rehabilitation programs. Eventually, her psychiatrist diagnosed her as bipolar ñ manic depressive ñ severe enough for shock therapy treatments.Whether addictive behavior is secondary to what is deemed a major mental illness like bipolar disease or primary based on wrongly wired brain chemicals doesnít matter. Itís all about the brain.One in five adults in this country is diagnosed with a grievous mental illness, such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder. I imagine that we could be talking about one in three adults, given the stigma and lack of access to mental health care.May is mental health month. National Mental Health Week is May 7 through May 13.I am passionate about the body-mind connection and too familiar with how untreated mental illness affects peopleís lives.I donít understand why mental and physical health issues are separate in the circles of mainstream medicine. If a primary care physician determines a patient has a heart condition, he or she is referred to a cardiologist. If a physician decides that reoccurring headaches, fatigue and weight loss are related to a dysfunction in the brain, a referral to a psychiatrist should be automatic, with the expectation that the insurance company will pay the same as they would for a heart condition.Senate Bill 36 is before the Colorado Legislature this year. As of this moment, itís passed a few readings in the Senate. SB 36 expands mandatory health insurance coverage (not applicable to small businesses) for all mental disorders, as defined by the international classification of diseases. Currently, Colorado mandates health coverage for only six biologically based mental illnesses.Although business advocates may feel the mandate is burdensome, consider the costs of mental health issues.Mental health problems are the leading cause of health-related work place productivity losses in this country, according to statistics from Pikes Peak Mental Health. Every year, 207 million workdays are lost to mental health issues that affect employees age 18 to 54. The annual economic cost in the U.S. is $17 billion.Employee substance abuse costs American businesses $116.6 billion each year. Colorado is in the top five in the nation for reported cases of drug and alcohol abuse and dependence. Colorado is No. 6 in the nation for suicide.Issues of the brain are as varied as maladies of the body. Genetics and environmental factors play a role in both, and the scale of severity related to brain illnesses is no different from degrees of allergies or cancer.One in four American families is affected by a major mental illness. How many families were directly affected by the mental health status of Virginia Tech student Cho Seung-Hui? Choís family members said he had exhibited signs of a very troubled mind from the time he was a toddler. I find it amazing that weíre suddenly interested again ñ like we were when Columbine happened ñ in the psychological makeup of the violent individual.Violence is prevalent daily in this country ñ in individuals and families.The trickle down effect of mental illness in families is real ñ and tragic if untreated. My sister-in-law inherited, at least in part, her motherís challenge with mental illness.My brother had his own demons. Given up for adoption at birth, he spent the first six months of his life in an overcrowded, under-funded, negligent orphanage in Canada. Malnourished and a failure-to-thrive baby, the doctor told my parents.With TLC and nourishment, six months later my brother was a chubby-cheeked, happy-go-lucky 1-year-old.However, wounds inflicted in his infancy festered in his soul.Somewhere between my sister-in-lawís fall to rock bottom and her decade-long journey to recovery, my brother picked up where she left off. He seemed strong and capable of taking care of his children in the absence of his wife. But he became an addict, too. My sister-in-law survived. My brother didnít.In February 2001, Michigan police found my brother lying on the ground, face down in a mud puddle. He had fallen as he walked home from the neighborhood bar. The police officer said there was no indication of foul play. The coroner said my brother, at age 47, had drowned.I am sure that my brother, an avid swimmer, would have come up with a few jokes poking fun at the way he died.But if he had not feared being labeled weak or crazy, he might have sought help for his demons. Then heíd be around to help his youngest son ñ a bright and handsome image of his dad, just in his early 20s ñ yet another victim of the cycle of mental illness within a family.We have to do more.A Gazette opinion editorial a couple days following the Virginia Tech shootings propagated the attitude that keeps us mediocre. ìUltimately, Cho Seung-Hui is to blame. Better understanding what demons drove him or what methods he used is only nominally useful in terms of preventing repeats, given the unsettling randomness of such events.îCho is to blame, yes. But total understanding of the human mind and the demons that drive violence is more than nominally useful in preventing repeats ñ itís imperative. Itís mindless to think otherwise.I have a friend in Indiana who was paralyzed from the neck down in a surfing accident in Mexico in 1988. He has lived a productive life as a business partner, father and husband.I have a friend ñ a once-brilliant and successful businessman ñ in Arizona who masked his depression with methamphetamines, eventually ending up in prison.We can lose all of our bodily functions, and, if our mind is intact, we can remain whole. If we lose our ability to judge whatís right because of a faulty brain, caused by nurture or nature; despite physical strength, our life is in pieces.Maybe we canít save everyone. But there were many people who intercepted Cho Seung-Hui along the way. If someone had been willing to go deeper into his black hole, regardless of the limitations of the system, perhaps 33 people would still be alive.

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