20051024-spec-mental-illness

“We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.” –Albert Schweitzer, missionary doctor to Congo, 1875-1965

KAMPALA, UGANDA ♦ In my brief and privileged time in the Third World, the most memorable image I’ve seen comes from Congo.

Walking through a refugee hospital one spring day in that traumatized country, I came across a figure that I can only describe as a human soul with skin stretched over it. She lay on a bed, motionless, covered with just early-morning shadows and a thin sheet. She was barely identifiable as a woman. Her eye sockets were dark and hollow.

She seemed the embodiment of loneliness. And I, an intruder.

The scene reminds me of home, where I lived from kindergarten to when I left for post-secondary studies 15 years later. During that time, my family operated a rest-home in our large Niagara house, where we cared for as many as a couple of dozen residents at once.

Like this African woman, some were frail. Others, less. Some had mental disease. Others, not. Some had loved ones visit. Others, never. Out of sight, out of mind: this was life for many of these discarded people, my extended family.

It comes to mind now, on the heels of World Mental Health Day and after yet another global natural disaster. Pakistan’s massive earthquake has thrown thousands into an ocean of grief. Remember, Third World trauma survivors suffer more than those in rich countries. Most have no support during their loss.

Pakistan, for example, gives 1 per cent of its GDP to healthcare. Mental health gets 1 per cent of that. Meanwhile, in some sub-Sahara African countries, there’s one psychiatrist for five million people. Such is the developing world.

Globally, about 450 million people suffer from mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disease and schizophrenia. Include a broader range of brain disorders like developmental diseases, epilepsy and stroke, and the number is 1.5 billion.

Sparked by trauma or otherwise, a mental problem at some level will apparently hit one in four of us, sometime. Yet nearly half of the world’s countries have no mental health policy, and nearly one-third have no program for coping with rising needs.

Not surprisingly, suicide is rising. It now kills about one million a year. The World Health Organization says that’s currently higher than annual deaths from global conflicts and homicides combined.

You didn’t suspect that, because suicide’s terrible stigma makes it hard to talk about. I know. My mother committed suicide. Now consider that by 2020, clinical depression, which is exasperated by loneliness, is expected to be the second largest contributor to the world’s burden of disease.

Loneliness.

Leo Buscaglia would say something about it all.

Buscaglia was a world traveller and professor who talked incessantly about something as nebulous as love. In the 1970s he led a popular class at the University of Southern California called exactly that: “Love 1A.”

Some of his lectures were later broadcast. I recall them well, because my fondest memory of home was gathering residents around the TV to listen.

The warm professor would say how peculiar it is that in the West people are measured by what they have, not who they are. And he’d say other incredible things like, “Real love always creates. It never destroys.”

One young woman told his class, it’s funny how few people hesitate to touch a baby, or pat or hug a strange dog. “And here I sit,” she said, “sometimes dying to have someone touch me. And nobody does.” With this, she passed the students on all fours. And they met her need.

Dying for touch. Maybe that’s how that woman in Congo felt.

Now, in Buscaglia’s words, imagine if all people were naked, and we closed our eyes. We’d see how the flower-girl could be confused with the queen, the jester could pass as the king, and the president could be seen as the migrant worker.

“Because there’s no greater knowledge than this: that each person in the world, no matter how lowly or princely, is basically a human being.”

I know the residents of my family home understood the good professor. The rest of us might still need to work at it, if we’re going to brighten life in our own particular circles.