Patrick Kennedy, JFK’s nephew and Ted’s son, came to the Brainerd area earlier this week for the Minnesota Hospital Association annual meeting. He kept his audience riveted as he spoke about his struggle with drug addiction and bipolar disorder, and as he tied his own experience in with the failings of America’s mental health care system as a whole. I was surprised that he spoke for more than an hour — a length of time that could strain the attention span of any typical audience member — but people stayed with him the entire time. I think that says something not only about Kennedy’s talent as a speaker, but also at the connection each person has with mental illness. It’s safe to wager that even if he spoke to an audience that wasn’t all doctors and hospital execs, Kennedy still would have had people wrapped around his words as he spoke. Even if we don’t have a mental illness ourselves, we know someone who does. Why is there any hesitation to talk about this when it forms an integral part of the lives of everyone?
I’ve had obsessive compulsive disorder since I was a boy, but I only started sustained treatment for it about a year ago. When most people think of OCD, they think of the “compulsive” part of the acronym, of people performing strict and weird rituals for no reason. That’s part of my experience too, but mainly the disease impacts me via the “obsessive” part of “obsessive compulsive disorder”. I have obsessive, intrusive thoughts. The easiest way to describe it — although get ready, because this is going to sound melodramatic — is a waking nightmare. A deep, dark part of your brain uses your worst fears against you, over and over again in thoughts you can’t escape from. I would drive in circles because I had convinced myself I hit someone with my car. Being in public meant — and still means now on bad days — that I pictured the people I come across being hurt. Strangers or family, the image of horrible things happening to them flashes in my minds eye. It’s as vivid in my imagination as if it were a real memory, and in the worst part of my time with OCD it’s difficult to tell the difference.
I should have gotten help years ago, but I didn’t. Since it was all in my head, I could hide my OCD pretty well, and I more or less hid it from my parents for decades even though my mom is a child psychologist. I thought I could handle it myself, but last year the wrongness of that idea caught up with me. I was almost too scared to leave my apartment for the calamity I thought would ensue. So I got help, from a therapist and from the Lakeland Psychiatry department at Essentia Health St. Josephs.
Here’s where my story intersects with the problems facing those with a mental illness across the country: a couple of months ago, I had an appointment with my psychiatrist at Lakeland, and he told me he was moving to Seattle. Good for him, but not good for his hundreds of patients. He told me that since the rest of the doctors were so booked up, I was essentially was on my own unless I could find a different facility. He wrote me a prescription for a year’s worth of meds, and that was that.
Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a criticism of Lakeland in any way. What’s that psychiatrist going to do, be confined to one town for the rest of his life like he’s in prison? Actually, maybe that’s a good idea, because it’s apparently going take the hospital press-ganging psychiatrists and locking them in the basement for the Brainerd community to get adequate mental health care coverage.
Here’s a better idea: maybe the insurers can try paying the providers like my psychiatrist what they’re actually worth. As Patrick Kennedy brought up during his speech this week, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Minnesota can’t be bothered to put mental health care patients ahead of their own profit margins, so they’re cutting reimbursements. There were therapists who protested at Blue Cross’s headquarters, but that crowd of protesters should have included every Minnesotan who cares about their neighbors, friends and family.