This week, I spent time with people who have been generous donors to a 200-year-old psychiatric hospital. They came together to learn about new treatments for mental health and to offer their help and assistance.
Harvard University’s McLean Hospital is at the forefront of research and treatment for everything from eating disorders to post traumatic stress and personality disorders.
I heard from parents whose children had come back from the brink and were leading amazingly productive lives. They had learned through proper treatment to live, work and play well. Many of their children were in relationships for the first time in their lives and were able to be full, productive citizens.
I was reflecting on this experience when I read in Sunday’s New York Times about a woman who was living a productive life with severe mental illness. She had lived a life with thoughts of suicide and severe anxiety and depression, as well as hearing voices at times. She was no stranger to a psychiatric hospital. She now has a high-level job supervising others and helping people with peer counseling.
Mental health treatment has advanced since I worked in the field. In the 1970s, having a diagnosis of schizophrenia meant that you could no longer work. Maybe, if you were lucky, you worked in a sheltered workshop or part time somewhere. Real relationships would never be obtainable. I left the field for journalism in 1991, and I was convinced that people who had a severe diagnosis were left to lead hollow lives with little pleasure and few connections to others.
That was until one day, while traveling to a city I do not usually go to, I put down my driver’s license at the airline ticket counter. Suddenly, the lady at the counter said, “Ellen Ratner!” My first thought was, oh boy, someone knows me from radio and hates me. “Wow,” I thought, “I will be lucky to get on this flight.”
As soon as the thoughts were formed in my mind, the woman at the counter said, “I remember you. You did a home visit on my family when you worked in the day treatment center.” I looked at the name and remembered the home visit well, even though it took place 25 years earlier. I asked, “Who was the identified patient?” “Me,” she replied.
She checked me in and left the counter to tell me her story. She had been in and out of mental hospitals for 10 years. Finally, a new drug came out on the market and she was able to get better. She was married to a man who also had a severe mental illness but had worked at this job for almost 15 years. Yes, she was still plagued by the illness, but she could work and loved her husband. He was still too ill to work, but they had a loving relationship. The medication made her tired, but she felt like a productive human being.
This was a valuable lesson for me not to write people off and to remember that even if someone can’t work today, there are so many new things on the horizon from new drugs and techniques, such as coherent breathing, the Fisher-Wallace stimulator, herbs and other help for those who have psychiatric illnesses and shouldn’t be given up for lost.
We live in a wonderful world where people have opportunities, where severe mental illness does not mean that you can’t be a productive member of society and where places like McLean Hospital will move heaven and earth to find and apply new treatments. Work is being done that Freud and his contemporaries could not even dream of. It is a testament to the researchers, the families of the patients and the patients themselves.