by David Shirey 8-22-23
I was thinking of someone the other day. Not someone who was really a friend. But someone I
knew moderately well. Family member of a family that my wife had really grown up with. They
celebrated holidays together, my wife went with them to their cabin in Canada for vacations,
her best friend and maid of honor was one of their daughters.
This person was the oldest son. He was two years older than me. And he was smart. As in very smart. I consider myself pretty sharp, but he could be very intimidating in a serious
conversation. He had graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry or Biology, don’t really remember which, and was headed to Rice for post graduate work. But someone being smart and successful is not enough. Because shortly after he got to Rice, he had what in those days was called a nervous breakdown. They found him in the shower, not moving, just staring.
And that was it, game over. His father flew down to Houston, got him, took him home, and within a year or so he was permanently confined to a mental hospital. Not a snake pit, but not where you’d go for a vacation.
You see, back then, there was no real recogni@on of mental illness. People knew he was not sick physically. And they didn’t really know what to do with that. Strange as it may seem, that was back when if people were talking about someone who had Cancer, they would say the word very softly. Partly because it was tantamount to saying someone was dying, and partly because of a feeling that if you said it out loud you ran a risk of getting it yourself.
And partly because there was always a little bit of a feeling that somehow the person had
brought it on themselves. You know, by the way they thought. The way they acted.
Sounds like people back then were pretty awful, doesn’t it? They weren’t. They were pretty
much like people today. But they didn’t know anything about mental illness. It was a gray area
that no one talked about, where treatments seemed ineffectual, and no one every really
Fortunately, that is finally changing. Thanks in part to sports and entertainment figures, in part
to treatments that can make measurable differences, in part because today we talk about
everything on TV and the media. Today, while there is not a universal cure, there is hope.
People today are just beginning to understand mental illness. They are beginning to see that it is just as serious, maybe more so, than most physical ailments. What is more important is that some people are beginning to not only accept people with mental illnesses in the work place, but feel comfortable with them and help them.
Mental illness can still be a devastating condition. But as treatments improve, and as people
become more accepting of those who suffer, at least we have the solace that we as a society are moving ahead.