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    Paule T. Pachter, CEO, Long Island Cares  ppachter@licares.org

    The recent deaths of actress Carrie Fisher and her legendary actress mother, Debbie Reynolds was one of the sadder stories that marked the end of 2016. In reading the many stories that appeared in print and online I was struck by the anonymous comments that people posted in relation to Carrie Fisher’s battle with mental illness.  Many of the comments were critical and often condemning of the actress and illustrate that society is comfortable in continuing to stigmatize mental illness and the millions of people who struggle with its symptoms every day of their lives.  It’s a sad commentary about many American’s lack of understanding or unwillingness to understand an illness that all of us have been exposed to by someone you love or know.

    While Fisher’s illness was diagnosed and being treated, if we look back to the presidential election of 2016, the political pundits, media and even some of the candidates were discussing some of Donald Trump’s behavior in terms that often describe a mental illness. He was described as an abusive personality, narcissistic, in denial, paranoid, and in some cases referred to as being mentally ill and incompetent to serve as Commander-in-Chief.  The same labels could have been applied to Hillary Clinton by saying she was in denial of her email scandal or paranoid that Russia was hacking the election.  While I’m not passing judgment on either candidate or on the election itself, it was another example of how flippant some people are about mental illness and its affect upon the people and families who try to cope and are often torn apart.

    Everyone at some time in their life has experienced depression, anxiety, hysteria, and other symptoms of mental illness. Like Debbie Reynolds, the loss of a child could cause such a severe depressed state of being that it leads to physical symptoms which in this case was a contributor to her death.  Long Island Cares although a food bank, delivers food to people’s homes through our Mobile Pantry and other outreach services, and several of the people we visit are seniors, disabled veterans and people with debilitating medical conditions who also suffer from depression, isolation and other symptoms of mental illness.  And, I bet while you’re reading this you’re not being critical of our work or the people we serve.  Thousands of veterans on Long Island are diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and too many have turned to suicide to end their pain and suffering but, we’re understanding of this form of mental illness.  At the same time, there are too many young people on Long Island that are addicted to prescription drugs and other substances who become depressed and suicidal and some unintentionally die from their addiction which is a contributing factor of mental illness.  And, I bet that some people reading this are not feeling that understanding about the plight of these people or their families.

    We’ll criticize Carrie Fisher and others who become addicted to drugs. We’ll make light of the emotional behavior of candidates for public office, and we’ll be understanding towards our veterans who bear the scars of serving our country.  When it comes to mental illness we shouldn’t pick and choose which people we’re compassionate about.  Everyone who struggles with mental illness deserves to be understood and be treated compassionately.  Mental illness and substance abuse are a major health issue on Long Island and we’re very fortunate that as a region we support a comprehensive and professional system of care that all of us one day might have to turn to for ourselves or someone we know.  Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynold’s tragic passing should serve as a wake-up call that just like cancer and heart disease, mental illness and substance abuse deserve support for research and treatment, and our understanding as a civilized society.

    This article was initially published in the HIA-LI Reporter, January 2017.

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