In 1998, the Ewing family experienced an unimaginable loss when their mentally ill son, Burt Ewing Jr., brutally murdered his sister during a delusional episode. He was found not-guilty because of his mental illness, and has since resided in the high security section of the Minnesota Security Hospital at the St. Peter Regional Treatment Center.
As horrific as this event was, it is more heartbreaking considering its preventability. Ewing’s mental illness became apparent during his college years, but this violent episode did not occur until he was 34. His family worked hard during that time to care for him.
For decades, the stigma of mental illness has pervaded into the legal and health systems. His family was unable to afford the medication he needed, and despite pleas for a case manager, the family was told that he needed to do something “severe” to receive that type of care.
The harsh truth is that when it comes to mental illness, society is reactive, rather than preventative.
Unlike many other life-threatening illnesses, severe mental illness comes with an obstacle course of treatment. Once diagnosed, the issue becomes finding the right medication. It can take months to find a medication that works, and due to the cyclical nature of many mental illnesses, the effectiveness of the medication can change within months, leading to another search for a cure.
These medications can be painfully expensive without proper healthcare coverage. On top of that, there are still struggles to find social workers and facilities capable of helping an individual work through their illness.
Financing treatment for a mentally ill individual is enough to drain a family’s bank account. The stigma surrounding mental illnesses also leaves a family isolated. There are no fundraisers for children diagnosed with schizophrenia. The community does not rally around those suffering from bipolar disorder. A family dealing with mental illness suffers quietly and shamefully. Their stories are never told until it’s too late.
Having grown up with a mother as a social worker and a schizoaffective sister (diagnosed with both schizophrenia and bipolar disorder), I’ve seen the ins and outs of mental illness. From the day my sister was diagnosed, the doctors gave my family one instruction; keep her alive long enough to grow out of the illness. Not the most encouraging advice.
Thankfully, my family was able to support my sister and today she is a healthy, happy, and independent woman free of old symptoms. We were the lucky ones, but my parents fought fiercely for my sister’s treatment, and I can’t help but wonder if my mother hadn’t had a connection with treatment centers due to her job, our story might have ended differently.
It should not take a violent outburst or tragic death from an extreme case for such diseases to be acknowledged. As frightening as these illnesses have become, they are highly treatable. The problem lies in finding affordable treatment and finding support within the community.
According to Psych Central, one in four college students suffers from diagnosable mental illness, ranging from anxiety to schizophrenia. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college-age adults. Two-thirds of young adults do not seek help for their mental illness. As discouraging as these statistics are, 90 percent of individuals who seek proper treatment return to mental health.
Despite these statistics, it’s amazing to see how open and supportive the Gustavus community is when it comes to dealing with mental illness. Gustavus Health Services offers confidential counseling services and online mental health screenings to students. The Gustavus website lists resources from emergency numbers and off-campus counseling services. Gustavus also hosts the Mental Health Wellness Fair and participates in Suicide Awareness Week.
Mental illness affects us all – whether it’s your sister, your classmates, or the Ewing family. And because it affects us all, it is vital to keep the conversation open. Be preventative, not reactive, when it comes to mental health.