With all the hurricanes and earthquakes and fires and everything happening lately, I have seen a lot of footage of people being rescued. You know the image: person lying in a stretcher, being placed into the back end of an ambulance; usually an oxygen mask on their face. They look hurt, but it is an optimistic image. You know that the worst is probably behind this person. They are safe now. The healing has already begun.
I don’t mean to minimize how intense the healing process is, or the struggle some of those people will endure yet. And obviously, some of those people won’t ever leave that hospital. But what I am speaking to is that hopeful image. They put that image on the news because it shows devastation, but it shows humans prevailing, overcoming, helping, healing. It shows us that everything will be okay.
This is meant to depict the end of the struggle. Help has arrived. Safety.
For those of us who have gone to the hospital for mental health concerns, it is often a very different situation. For us, going to the hospital is filled with fear and trepidation. It might save our life, but things will probably get worse before they get better.
Now, obviously, everyone goes to the hospital out of desperate need. But few groups of sick people fear treatment as much as the mentally ill. Even the really scary physical health treatments, (like massive surgery, cancer treatments, physical therapy, etc.) are faced as either life or death scenarios or that you have a pretty favorable expectation of recovery. In other words, the scariness of the treatment can be balanced by the direness of the situation or the reliability of the results, or both.
But, of course, neither of those are true in the mental health world.
Even in the best case scenario you will be running through, on average, three different medication sets that will be trialed, on average, for six weeks apiece. And even then the effectiveness of the medicine is something like 1 in 4. And in the meantime, there isn’t really anything that can be done, no prediction can be made, and no answers really given.
On top of that, stereotypes, misinformation and stigma surrounding mental health treatment make it much scarier than it needs to be. Put that all together and you can see that the decision to actually go to the hospital can be a daunting one.
It isn’t like getting rescued off your roof by boat, even though your mental foundation is flooding and washing away.
Part of my fascination with this imagery of rescued people and how it relates to my mental health hospitalizations is that they use the same phrase for both situations. You ever notice that?
I’m not saying crisis is the wrong word to use. But crisis is generally applied in three ways: a public catastrophe, like a natural disaster, or a public health concern, like the smoking or alcohol or obesity, or a mental break. Sometimes you will hear about an individual with significant personal physical health issues as having a ‘health crisis’, but it isn’t common. Certainly no one would say that a person having a heart attack was having a crisis, right?
So crisis, a word generally used to describe a disastrous event that affects an entire community of people, and also someone who might attempt suicide. It is kind of an odd mash-up of meaning. The implication of crisis is that while it is awful to deal with, it will pass.
A person experiencing a psychological break is more akin to a person being diagnosed with cancer than a person trapped by a flood. But the person with cancer isn’t being labeled as ‘in crisis’. That person will have to deal with the realities of cancer everyday for the rest of his or her life, even if it goes into remission or they are deemed cancer free. Being diagnosed with cancer changes your psychology of being ‘healthy’.
Likewise, for the suicidal person, the danger isn’t over when they enter the hospital. And for most of us, we are never going to hear a doctor tell us that the ordeal is over, that our treatment is concluded, that we are all back to full health. The crisis will never end, regardless of how much time you put between yourself and that event.
That isn’t how mental health works, at least, not yet.