Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Mental Health and Brain Injury Require Thoughtful Response

(From the April 9, 2015 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

I’ve been thinking about thinking lately. Specifically, I’ve been musing about how people think when they have had a brain injury or have a mental illness. I’ve also been thinking about how those around people with cognitive issues resulting from mental illness or brain injury think about them.

The reason for my consideration of all of this comes from a sudden coincidence of people I know or met who have such cognitive issues.

My father has had several bouts of depression a few years ago, one requiring hospitalization. He is fine now, with his mental health controlled by counseling, medication, and lots of prayer. But for a while it was frightening as my mother and I felt as if we were speaking to a completely different person.

Closest to me is my wife, whose breast cancer spread to the brain in late 2013. The surgery and radiation to her head relieved her of this tumor, and we are grateful that recent scans show no sign of cancer. But there are lingering effects. One side of her mouth droops, especially when she is emotional. She gets a little extra emotional at times—either laughing or crying. She has headaches that may be caused by a muscle in her forehead that doesn’t relax since the surgery. She gets anxious in crowds. There are memory and focus issues. Sometimes she struggles to pronounce words correctly.

My wife and I laugh about it. We joke that with me being the stereotypical absent-minded professor and her dealing with consequences of brain surgery, we have half a brain between the two of us.

Yet, it is not funny. It’s frustrating and sad. And the worst of it is, most people don’t understand. They say she “looks great” and they’re happy she is currently cancer-free. But when we discuss cognitive issues they have a blank response and a look that seems to say, “well, snap out of it.”

I’ve heard this sort of sentiment from others too. They explain their difficulties and fear that people assume they are making weak excuses versus describing legitimate and real problems.

A man from my church has lost a lot of his short-term memory because of brain surgery. Another has had cognitive issues that make it challenging for him to keep a job. The mother of a friend gets tired and overwhelmed in crowds after a head injury in a car accident. Last semester a student in one of my classes collapsed in the middle of a presentation because of a brain tumor. One this semester explained to me why he sits in back and leaves the room occasionally because of anxiety brought on by some traumatic life events. Another is in counseling and needs special accommodation because of the untimely and suspicious circumstances of her mother’s death.

These people—and their spouses and close friends—have to explain their situations to others in the hope that they will not be judged for forgetting things or leaving a party early or needing to sit on the end of a row at church. But it is hard.

Injury or illness of a physical nature is also challenging, but does not come with such a stigma. People can better understand what they can see. A wheelchair, a prosthetic limb, a cast, a scar or other visible evidence do the explaining for them. But people with mental health or brain injuries have to explain themselves, repeatedly, and still fear judgment instead of compassion.

So let me offer a few words of advice. First, truly listen to people. Understand the situation they’re in is as real as a broken bone. Don’t offer quick diagnosis and solution. Don’t assume they haven’t tried to find relief. Understand that some mental health and brain injuries have lasting effects and don’t just heal over time. Don’t let people with mental health issues or brain injuries and their side effects annoy you. Instead, love them, just as they are.

In short, if you have a fully functioning brain, then use it to understand those who don’t. If you have a problem with their behavior, snap out of it.