Esther died alone, in a motel room. It was a cold, murky morning. The hotel was small and cheap and located just off the freeway. It was only a few miles from home. Esther had a home, you see. The same home she grew up in with both of her parents and her brothers and sisters and always, the family dog. She wasn’t old, she wasn’t homeless. She had, in fact, retired early with plenty of money. Single and childfree, she’d enjoyed the fruits of her labor, spending time with friends, traveling abroad, collecting art. She was a little overweight, wore thick glasses and sometimes drank too much, but she was well-educated, fun and funny.
We talk a lot about Esther, my friends and me. How did things get so bad? What did we miss? How could we have helped? What was going on in her head? For us the answers seem clear, but chances are, it was complicated.
The stigma of mental illness is slowly eroding. Celebrities talk more often now about their personal challenges. We know Selena Gomez sought treatment for depression and anxiety. Singer Rick Springfield wrote a book about his lifelong struggles with depression. Actress Jamie Lee Curtis talks openly about her battle with addiction. Locally, I hear more and more people, usually young people, share stories of personal mental health struggles. Often, youth who’ve attended Amberwing, the Miller-Dwan Foundation’s mental health center for youth, wear their time at Amberwing like a badge of honor. Esther, I suspect, would not have done that.
Esther was stoic, rational, pragmatic. If she was sick, depressed, or otherwise in pain, she probably wouldn’t tell us. She was of that era where mental illness simply wasn’t discussed. Not only was it not discussed, but it would also not have been labeled an illness or even recognized as an illness. She had hip surgery, but that was different. For anything else, she’d put on a brave face and carry on. Never in a million years would she think therapy could help. Esther never asked for help, for anything.
As Esther got older, and after she retired, it’s easy to think she may have become lonely – no partner, no kids, a few distant family members, and us – her friends, but that’s about it. She had time on her hands. COVID made it hard to socialize, hard to travel. Her usual activities were shut down. Maybe she was drinking more. COVID plus alcohol has been the perfect recipe for mental illness.
During the pandemic in the U.S., four people out of 10 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression. This was up from one in 10 people in 2019. People were having difficulty sleeping, some were overeating, and others were drinking too much alcohol or abusing substances beyond their usual use. It’s likely Esther was one of these people. And now, as the pandemic wears on, more and more people seem to be struggling. We’re seeing it in our inpatient mental health units and in our partial hospitalization programs. So, was there a solution of Esther?
We may have been able to help Esther. Maybe we should have paid more attention, asked more questions. But from a larger perspective, I do think we can save the Esthers of the world. It will take energy, programming, money, commitment –– all of us working together to address the stigma associated with mental illness, to assure easy and immediate access for those who need help now and to help address mental illness in all its complexities.
How to Help
A gift to Miller-Dwan Foundation’s mental health fund will support our inpatient mental health units, provide the additional space needed for those who are waiting for care and help get the word out about mental illness –– that it needn’t be a secret, that talking about it does make a difference, that there is help available.
Now is the time. Mental illness constitutes our region’s priority healthcare need. The people who need help, need it now. You can give online, call us at 218-786-5829 with your credit card number, make a gift in memory or honor of a loved one or enjoy the tax benefits of donating appreciated stock.