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Charlotte Amalie
Sunday, June 16, 2024
HomeCommentaryOp-Ed: The Invisible Illness

Op-Ed: The Invisible Illness

“It is invisible, like the air, I am trying so hard to breathe.” (Source photo by Michele L Weichman)

Around the world, people are living with mental illness, and the resources and support needed to help this community of people are lacking. More specifically, these resources are almost non-existent right here at home in the territory. And on Tuesday, due to the minimal support we have, a man lost his life and another is possibly going to prison for murder. 

This was a sad day that began with the death of a father and ended with a son being led out of the water at Hull Bay in handcuffs for being the one who committed the act. But my question is, did this have to happen? I thought about this long and hard. Would there have been a different outcome if Mohammed Salem had been able to receive the care that he so obviously needed? I can’t answer with 100 percent certainty, but I would like to think, “Yes.”

Well, What Do You Know? 

You see, I live with mental illness. I have done so since I was a young child. I am not a medical professional and don’t claim to be, but I do know that not everyone is lucky enough to receive the same help and support I have and currently do. 

I also do a lot of service work in the community, and I see that we have a significant lack of funding for the proper mental health resources to help those who desperately need them. And for this reason, we are seeing more people become unhoused, more deaths by suicide and an increase in substance abuse.  

In my eyes, there is also zero sense of urgency to attack this epidemic and I believe this is because of the strong stigma that is put on mental illness. People are scared of what they don’t understand, and from my experience, most people cannot comprehend that mental illness is just that, an “illness.”

I often reference it as the “invisible illness” because it can’t always be seen. It’s not the same as watching someone live with cancer, heart disease, diabetes or a broken limb. Most times, it goes undetected because people are ashamed and scared to admit that they are experiencing strong emotional issues out of fear that they will be considered “crazy,” “nuts,” “wacko,” or, my favorite, “unstable.” I know this for two reasons. For one, I have seen it happen to others, and two, because it has and continues to happen to me.

At this point, many of us begin to shut down and no longer want to care for ourselves because we feel hopeless. If others think we are “crazy,” then we must be, right? Having this happen can lead to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs and can eventually lead to some people being unhoused. If you take a stroll around the islands, you will see many unhoused people, and I will take bets that, just like Mohammed, they are considered to be just another “homeless bum or wacko.” And then, if things get bad enough, there is the ultimate sacrifice of death by suicide. 

When people are diagnosed with the other illnesses and diseases I mentioned above, sympathy and empathy are shown because people can see that the person is physically sick. There are physical signs that the disease is attacking the person’s body to the point that a major organ may be affected. But isn’t the brain a major organ? Mental illness is born through the chemicals in the brain being unbalanced. The chemicals in our brains help it operate. Once again, it can be invisible and left unseen; therefore, people do not consider mental illness to be an actual illness. 

So What Happens?

Sometimes, when people find out that someone has a mental illness, they get scared because what does that even mean? So much can fit under that description, and there is a lot of negative connotation on the term itself. There are many different forms of mental illness and some can be more extreme than others. As humans, our thoughts immediately go to extremes instead of pausing and thinking through all the possibilities. 

Rushing to the extreme and automatically thinking that someone with a mental illness is a “lunatic” and is dangerous makes people back away. We have all seen how the media portrays those with mental illness, so why wouldn’t we believe that’s the way it really is? And this is sad because we are not bad people. We are actually the exact opposite. We are smart, sometimes even brilliant. We are creative and funny. Just take a look at history.

But we are sick people who need care such as therapy and medication, just like your family member who needs chemotherapy for their cancer or dialysis to better their liver function. Or do you know the pills you take for the chronic migraines you get? It’s the same thing. The only difference is that all those other illnesses have proper funding and resources and zero stigma; mental health, not so much.

Unfortunately, we are living with a disease that alienates us from the rest of society. We are living with an illness that takes time, dedication and medical attention for us to find balance. And please pay attention to the word that I used: BALANCE. There is no cure for mental illness at this point in time. We will live with it and tend to it for the rest of our lives. But we need help if we are going to be able to experience whole and healthy lives. 

Why Are You So Passionate About This?

I am aware of the strong stigma placed on mental illness because I live with it every day. People look at me like I am a “weirdo” even though I don’t present as someone who shows symptoms because I am lucky enough to get the care that I need. However, just the fact that people know I am Bipolar and know that I have OCD and anxiety is enough for them to judge me.

Here’s a quick example of what happened to me to prove my point: 

I was hospitalized back in 2019 because my then-psychiatrist had overmedicated me. I was experiencing suicidal ideation, as people with mental illness sometimes do, and I was taken to SRMC and placed on the fifth floor, currently our only place for mentally ill patients. My stay was a week, just enough time for another psychiatrist to regulate my medication and for me to get back to a point of stability. 

I was lucky! I had a supportive partner and other members of my support team who took quick action. If I had not received the support and care that I needed, there could have been a tragic outcome, as we have seen happen with other people. However, I survived. I made it out of the psych ward and back to my loving home. But it still came with a price. 

When I was released from the hospital, I needed time to get used to my new medication and give it time to process in my system. Most of these meds can take six to eight weeks to take effect fully. I took a leave of absence from work (FMLA, which my medical situation was covered under) to give me time to heal. Although I did not yell from the rooftops what had happened to me and what I was going through, as we all know, this is a small place, and the coconut telegraph is real and strong. In other words, people found out quickly.  

When I went back to work, I was alienated. I was observed every day. I was put on watch. People with whom I had a great working relationship and even created friendships stayed clear of me. Mind you, I had NEVER presented any symptoms at the workplace, but just hearing that I was mentally ill and I had been in the psych ward was enough for them to pass judgment.

I often wonder if I had gone out on sick leave because I had broken a limb or been diagnosed with some other illness if people would have had the same reaction when I returned to work. Would there have been a welcome-back banner instead of an email stating that I would be observed until the administration felt it was “safe” for me to work unsupervised? You tell me. I think if we are being honest, we all know the answer. 

The discrimination eventually became so bad that it threw me into a deep depression. Because of the ignorance and the meanness I was experiencing, I felt worthless. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like all the words and names whispered behind my back were true.

I ended up on medical leave again and had to decide whether returning to work was the healthiest choice. After much discussion with my support team, the answer was no. And just like that, due to a lack of education when it comes to mental health, my career as an educator/administrator of 15 years came to an end. I decided to resign.

Why Are You Telling Us All of This?

My story is just another example of how mentally ill people are treated. It’s an example of why there were many horrible comments directed at Mohammed for the crime that he is accused of committing. It shows that unless you have the money, the support and the resources to get help, people aren’t invested in helping someone like him. 

Instead, people will leave him on the side of the road, laugh at him as they pass by, and call him names instead of finding him some help. I understand that he was in a bad way and passed the point of someone being willing to approach him because he had reached a point of being violent. However, in his defense, he was left to his own devices, and those devices led him down a path of self-destruction. 

I applaud those who were kind and compassionate with their comments on social media and those who advocated for more mental health support in the territory. Don’t stop there! Social media is not where your advocacy should end. Go to the extremes. Help those who can’t help themselves. Be their voices! 

So, Where Do We Go From Here? 

We need help. We need lawmakers to step up and find the funding to help people in need. We need medical professionals to donate time and serve those who cannot afford the care. We need in-patient mental health facilities on island where people can be admitted and not just dismissed. We need support groups for those of us who can maintain our health. I call on those of you working on degrees and certifications in the mental health field to return home and give back to your community. We need you!

At the bare minimum, we need support from community members to look out for each other instead of looking the other way, hoping someone else will do something about it. If you see something, say something! 

Who Are You?

I was not born on St. Thomas but have resided here for over 20 years. The V.I. has become my home. I cannot imagine living elsewhere because I believe in this community; it is the only place I have ever felt I belonged. For that reason, I choose to give back, and it’s possible that you have met me through community service projects or when I was an educator. Today, you can find me still digging deep into being of service to our community by day and editing and putting together an excellent paper by night. 

What Do I Believe?

We are better than the comments that were on social media this week. I know how resilient this community is and how we have come together to help each other after hard times and disasters. This situation should be no different. 

Therefore, I am calling on all of you to make a difference. Put your thinking caps on and speak up! Remember, just because you can’t see us suffering doesn’t mean that mental illness does not exist. 

Please don’t make us feel invisible any longer.

I leave you with a poem I wrote when I first started experiencing discrimination because of my illnesses. Writing has always been an excellent outlet for me to relieve the pain:

The Hidden Illness by Michele L Weichman

My illness is hidden

Like a dark secret

It is invisible

Like a ghost

I look okay on the outside

But no one can see that I am struggling

Going up and down and all around

I am broken, but it goes unseen

I reach for help

Very few reach back

Because my illness is hidden

Like a treasure chest deep in the sea

It is invisible 

Like the air, I am trying so hard to breathe

 

— Michele L Weichman, St. Thomas, is a writer, blogger, advocacy worker, mentor and the main editor for the Source. 

 

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