Tackling mental illness

Rep. Sue Myrick (R-N.C.) has a clear-eyed view of mental illness these days, but it wasn’t always that way.

As a young girl growing up in Tiffin, Ohio, she and a church group put on a play at a state mental hospital. She remembers feeling uneasy as she mingled with patients who often made odd noises. But even then, she also saw happiness flicker in their eyes as they watched the play.

The feelings of compassion and fear she experienced as a girl are the same feelings mental illness still prompts in many people, and Myrick wants to tackle the fear. She came forward not long ago with news that her granddaughter has bipolar depression and an addiction to drugs that often accompanies the condition.

One of Congress’s own, Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), also admitted this year that he has bipolar depression and an accompanying drug addiction. Myrick is appreciative of his candor and plans to work with him as much as she can.

“I am grateful he is willing to put himself out front as he has,” she said.

In June, the congresswoman led hearings on the subject in the Energy and Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Health. She knows this is a small step in the long road toward public awareness.

She feels strongly because she has watched her granddaughter struggle for 13 years against a condition that few people ever admit they have. She recounts her desperation and her family’s dealing with an illness that Congress, like the public, fails to recognize as a disease that should be treated as routinely as any other.

It was difficult to schedule the hearing in a heated campaign year. Bipolar depression wasn’t something politicians could politicize.

“It wasn’t a policy hearing; it was an awareness hearing,” said Myrick’s legislative director, Sarah Hale. “It’s not an easy issue because people always want to politicize.”

Myrick speaks of her granddaughter’s condition not easily but with candor.

“It’s not just the person [who suffers],” she said last week, “it’s a family. I finally came to the conclusion that the only thing that was going to help was to change the stigma so people treat it like any other disease.”

A disease like cancer.

In 1999, a regular mammogram forced Myrick to confront her own mortality. Like many people who are told they have cancer, she thought she was going to die.

She had surgery, followed by radiation treatments. She also held a press conference to make her condition public, which she found freeing; women wrote in to thank her for helping save their lives.

“Most people won’t do it if you’re in politics,” she said. “You’re supposed to be perfect. You’re not supposed to be normal like other people.”

Kennedy understands. “I applaud her efforts to raise awareness,” he said last week, sitting in an armchair in the Speaker’s Lobby. “Anything that helps destigmatize the issue moves us closer to the day of treating it as a physical illness that it is.”

He applauds Myrick’s hearings but looks forward to a Democratic future, saying: “Just getting experts to talk about it is certainly helpful. This will assist us in passing parity [legislation] when we take over the Congress next session.”

Myrick is not among the 11 co-sponsors of Kennedy’s bill (H.R. 1789) intended to educate health professionals about drug-use disorders and addiction. Nor is she a sponsor of H.R. 1946, which would amend the Social Security Act to improve coverage of mental-health services under Medicare.

She is, however, a member of the bipartisan Mental Health Caucus.

“Sue is a fiscal conservative before all else,” said Myrick spokesman Andy Polk. “Other mental-health-related bills involve very broad private sector mandates (parity won’t pass under current leadership).

“We are working with several groups to attempt to come up with some ideas that will be Republican-friendly and change the system for the better. … Her goal right now is to start changing the way people view brain diseases.” 

Myrick’s office points to bipartisan bills she co-sponsors, such as a resolution that “supports the goals and ideals of Mental Health Month” and the Keeping Families Together Act, which would establish a grant program to end the practice of parents’ giving legal custody of seriously emotionally disturbed children to state agencies for the purpose of obtaining mental health services for those children.

Kennedy said there are countless people suffering with the illness who can’t afford treatment: “Our stories are nothing compared to the millions of Americans who are suffering every day but don’t have the financial resources or access to the best treatment, and that is what we have to keep in mind.

“The real burden is not that we’re somehow open about a very stigmatized illness. That’s no burden for us to carry and nothing we should pat ourselves on the back for. As members of Congress we have mental-health coverage. It’s a shame that this Congress doesn’t pass a mental-health measure for Americans.”

Myrick has permission from her graddaughter, who is now 27, to speak about her condition. The lawmaker says she is still the “dear child” she knew of as a girl.

Myrick recalls memories of her growing up.

“She was very loving, very compliant, helping and doing whatever needed to be done,” Myrick said. “She was always the one who took care of everyone else and solved problems for everyone else.”

But when she reached her teenage years, everything changed and she began “acting out, not coming home, staying out all night.” There were long phone conversations filled with worry.

“You wonder why someone came from being wonderful [but could go] to being disrespectful and staying out and talking back to her mom, which is normal teenage behavior in a lot of ways,” she said.

Her granddaughter suffered severe mood changes, swinging from happiness to total withdrawal.

“You worry constantly because there always seemed to be a crisis of some kind,” Myrick said. “One day is fine, the next is a disaster. … That was what was so hard to understand.”

Then came the difficulty of getting help.

Myrick’s granddaughter was in and out of hospitals, but never there long enough to be diagnosed.

“That’s how I learned my way around the mental-health system,” the lawmaker said. “[But] they didn’t have answers.”

At the time, her granddaughter didn’t want to be diagnosed and didn’t want help. A children’s attorney once came and got her released from a hospital, setting back hope of a diagnosis.

Next came heavy drug use.

“What they do is they self-medicate to kill the pain, which of course doesn’t work,” Myrick said. “Everybody tried to talk with her. When she was not having an episode she could be as normal and agreeable as anyone else.”

Sometimes her granddaughter had manic episodes during which she would stay up all night with a million thoughts a minute. And then there came the crashes.

“You go from … wanting to stay up all night and then you have these deep depressions where you can’t get out of bed,” Myrick said.

Eventually her granddaughter was diagnosed. Today she is off drugs except for lithium to help balance her moods, but Myrick said doctors still don’t really know how to do that: “They still don’t have that worked out, and they should.”

And how is her granddaughter now? “She’s doing well,” Myrick said. “How long that lasts, no one knows. She’s keeping a job, but she’s not living up to her potential.”

The congresswoman blames society’s stigma and resents her failure to progress and have a more normal life and job.

“I believe we have a wonderful opportunity to change this,” Myrick said, adding, “Twenty years ago people wouldn’t say they had cancer.

“This [bipolar depression] is a disease of the body. It happens to be in your head. I intend to speak out every opportunity I have. This isn’t something to be ashamed of.”