Thoughts About Compassion’s Effect on the Mental Illness Experience

I have been a recipient of mental health services since I was ten years old, due to depression instigated by domestic discord. And right from then, I figured the major principle of the therapeutic process: tell everything on your mind, so as to be honest and thorough. Most of the time, I have been received well in therapy. I am verbally articulate and intelligent, and so therapists enjoy working with me. Even in my worst times, during psychiatric hospital stays, I have been considered as “highly functioning,” and a favored patient by doctors.

I have enjoyed staying in the nicer of hospital units in New York City. Following ER visits, I have been sent to New York Presbyterian’s units in both the East Side and in Westchester. I have been to NYU Langone Medical Center’s psychiatric unit twice, where I enjoyed art therapy twice daily, five days a week. My final hospitalization was at Long Island Jewish Zucker Hillside Hospital, and it was this place that best rehabilitated me to functioning normalcy. After a two-plus month stay, four years ago, I am now steadily climbing higher and higher towards recovery. I hope to never return again, but if circumstances force me to, I will again gladly accept the help as an inpatient.

I realize that my inpatient experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. I have never been shipped off to scarier places like Bellevue Hospital, or to any state institutions such as Creedmoor Psychiatric Center. It was only my last hospitalization (the seventh), when I was required to follow up by spending a year in an outpatient treatment programs. (Note that an outpatient program is often full-time, thereby disrupting one’s ability to work or attend school.) After previous hospitalizations, doctors did not mandate me to attend any outpatient treatment programs.. Instead, they gave me permission to return to my previous engagements, uninterrupted. Many times, I really was too ill to continue, but doctors gave me the benefit of the doubt, overestimating my capacities.

It disturbs me then…if I am offered benefit, then who is not? Why me, and not others? The truth could be as scary as blaming it on race and socio-economic status. I myself am of mixed heritage (half Nepali/half Caucasian), and come across as an olive white person. I do not bear the brunt of institutionalized racism. I also have a devoted mother who has caught me every time I fall. When I was unable to support myself, she provided me with food and shelter. Although my father was abusive to us in my childhood, my mother fought back by providing me with unconditional love. This gave me a fighting chance.

By no means is my small family wealthy. My mother and I struggle merely to remain in the middle class. Yet she always gave me the very best. She paid for me to have violin and viola lessons, and I became skilled enough to receive a bachelors degree in music performance from a prestigious conservatory. When I was suicidally depressed in middle school, she scraped pennies together and put me in a private school. Whenever I was hospitalized, she would visit me every single day, for weeks on end.

I am so lucky, it’s ridiculous. I don’t say this to be arrogant, but rather to make a point. If I did not have this support from my mother, I would not have had the clean clothes on my back. I would not have had a place to return home to after discharge. Instead, I would have been shuffled into the public assistance system, ending up in a homeless shelter. I’d get into public housing eventually, forced to live on a shoestring budget, perhaps in an unsafe neighborhood.

What if my circumstances were switched, and I did not have my mother to catch me when I fall? Would I be sitting at this desk right now, typing out this article? Would I be mentally lucid enough to organize my thoughts, in a way that allows me to impart my experiences in a sensical manner? Would I be as pleasant to look at? I remember five years prior, when I was living at home with my mother, with only a disabled future on the horizon. I was obese, unable to keep down a job, and at times convinced that I was the reincarnation of Beethoven. And while my skin’s shade may have then still been what it is today, skin color does not determine how sick one can become. Mental illness can affect anyone.

I work at a mental health agency now as a peer specialist. My agency provides services and housing to people with mental illness disabilities, and I specifically work at one of their housing offices. We have apartments in the community that our clients rent, and we manage that whole process. As for being a peer specialist, I relate to clients by remembering my own experiences, and then using that wisdom gleaned from experiences in order to empathize.

Aside from my mother’s support, I still have had the experience of being on subsidized health insurance (Medicaid and Medicare), receiving food stamps (EBT benefits) and also monthly SSI disability payments. I know what it’s like to wait on lines for hours with a ticket number in my hand. I know what it’s like to have a bank account in someone else’s name. Little things like this really help me understand the day-to-day living of clients.

And yet I see so many people suffering. Suffering because they don’t have the support of family. Exhausted, because they have been shuffled through the system for years. Hopeless, due to having numerous hospitalizations, thereby impeding a person’s capacity to hold down a job. How is a person expected to fully recover, when these barriers become insurmountable?

In my experience, New York City offers excellent psychiatric care to those who are disabled and on public assistance, in comparison to other parts of this country. I remember living in Indiana when I was in college, encountering psychiatric professionals who were only really able to manage depression. Once I developed schizophrenia, I was beyond their capacity.

In the future, it is my hope that people with mental illness can be provided with opportunities to better themselves, on a “personal journey” level.  I think a great way to achieve this is through the arts.  Teaching people to express themselves through creative discipline.  When one takes violin lessons, or learns to paint, s/he practices the skill, learning to improve from a mentor.  In this process of artistic growth, personal psychological growth can also occur.  And for those not artistically inclined, there is writing, athletics, and so forth.

A return to “apprenticeship education” can help a person grow and develop, while also benefiting from highly-personalized interactions, and dare-I-say faith.  Faith that the person will succeed.

And if we went back to this type of education, we might have a resurgence of Renaissance. People, not only being productive and profitable, but creative.  I’m tired of seeing boxy brick houses.  Why cannot we allow workers of all types to adopt creative techniques as they apply their skills?

I muse, I wander here in this post.  But such I feel.  Society must abandoning the negative assumptions that stigmatize the “mentally ill.”  Instead, they can offer unconditional love and belief in a “crazy person’s” ability to grow and develop, like anyone else.  When we water a seed, it grows.  Such too is mental wellness.  Such it needs to be.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts About Compassion’s Effect on the Mental Illness Experience

  1. You have been very lucky, much more so than many clients I have known. And it is true that compassion and mentoring are essential. In a way we are all, even those not diagnosed as mentally ill (I think that if they had words, the other animals that know us best would call us all, “The Mad Apes.”), are apprentices of living. The words, “I have faith in you.” truly spoken have a healing power all their own.

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