Most social workers have a few clients that leave an impression. They change your view on mental health, and the system, and motivate you to stay in the field to make it a better place for them.
The first time I saw her was at a community hospital’s psychiatry clinic where I worked as a social work clinician. She was a new patient who just started showing signs of a mental disorder. She was amongst a group of non-English speaking immigrant patients, but she stood out—she was a student of an Ivy League university with a passion for art and architecture.
I saw her again in a clinic recently, more than twenty years later. Her hair had turned gray and she is now a middle aged woman. Her speech is disorganized. Her mood is labile. She is angry with the voices she hears that frequently criticize her. She is confused and scared by people surrounding her on the streets that she thinks is trying to hurt her. She does not trust even her own family. She cries and screams hysterically when she is upset. She complains that she cannot find a quiet place to live. The evil illness has devoured this once bright young woman.
When I listen carefully, it is clear that her passion to study art and architect is still intact after two decades. Actually, she has spent the past twenty years hanging around campuses and libraries. She continues to pursue her dream ineffectively while the rest of the world sees her just another ‘mentally disturbed’ person.
Just like all of us, most of the victims of mental disorder have dreams they want to pursue. Because of the negative impact of their illness on their brain, the challenges are daunting. And the rest of us are not helping. I have met a psychiatrist who told me his story of being diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was in his teens. We at times see that success for schizophrenia is possible. But most of the victims of mental disorders are just forgotten by the society. One million Americans with serious mental disorder are not even getting treatment. We continue to let patients enter jails and prisons, or we leave them at the street corners or the morgues. We, as a society, need to do a better job.
The country is paying huge human and financial costs for not caring for the millions of Americans with mental disorders. We need better scientific research and knowledge to understand and to treat mental disorders. We need better attitudes towards people who suffer from mental disorders. Being a social work clinician and seeing patients day in and day out, I have a hard time distinguishing mental disorders from human suffering. Is the severe depression of a seriously abused woman just a medical condition, or a result of suffering in her life? Is treating the symptoms of her depression with the best medication enough?
I believe we need a mental health system and professionals that takes care of the entire person, not just the disease and symptoms. This is the mental health system that I and my team strive for.
Written by Teddy Chen
Teddy Chen, LCSW, PhD, is a New York State licensed clinical social worker, and the director of the Mental Health Bridge Program at the Charles B. Wang Community Health. The Bridge Program is a nationally recognized service model of providing total healthcare by integrating mental health with primary care.