James Brennan: Dreams from my sister

By James Brennan, Columnist
Published April 16, 2014

This is my last week in Washington, D.C. but my mind is in only one place: Beaumont, Royal Oak’s psychiatric ward, where my sister, Caity, has been since Friday. She hospitalized herself that night for fear of her own safety, having experienced suicidal thoughts as a result of her continuing battles against her own mind.

James Brennan

Some of you may have become familiar with my sister this year on campus. You may have read one of her columns in The Michigan Daily, been served by her while out at The Brown Jug or recognized her as the outspoken 23-year-old sophomore in class. What you probably wouldn’t have realized, though, is that since she was a small child, my sister has been fighting a myriad of mental health challenges, from depression to anxiety to bipolar disorder. You also probably didn’t know of her struggles this semester, on and off various antipsychotic drugs in an attempt to control increasingly perplexing problems and side effects.

Mental health issues have long been in the closet, but they no longer can be. My sister’s story is one of millions that needs to be heard.

I need to make it clear that Caity is not just any other person. I’m obviously biased because I’m her brother, but it’s true. This is a girl who had set her heart on Columbia University in elementary school because “Harvard is too conservative” and who began on the honors track in middle school. She had mastered the German language by 16, was a state championship contender in mock trial at 17, and then moved to Europe, alone, at 19. By age 20, she was able to communicate in French, Flemish, Swedish and Spanish with little formal training, all while working as a fashion design assistant and a nanny full time.

But, like many others, my sister’s brilliant mind is at war with itself every single day, often crippling her abilities to go to school, work or, some days, hold a coherent thought.

In my short lifetime, I’ve seen far more suffering from mental health issues than any single person should. In middle school, I saw my sister mourn the loss of one of her best friends, who committed suicide at 15. Two years later, I was calling an ambulance after my sister swallowed three bottles of pills in an attempt to end her own life. Shortly after that, one of my older cousins killed himself while only in his 20s. I’ve had my share of mental health issues as well, fighting suicidal thoughts and spending countless hours in therapy.

If I’ve learned anything from my experience with mental health problems, it’s that it needs to stop being treated so differently from every other ailment. A person suffering from bipolar disorder is like a person suffering from cancer or diabetes. This isn’t a matter of choice or control; their brain chemistry is malfunctioning and needs treatment to function properly again. Their body is physically not working, much like a sick patient with a failing immune system. The only difference is that their symptoms come out in their thinking and behavior. People are rarely “crazy” — more often than not, they’re actually very sick.

Like with other health-care issues, the people who are worst off in this area are the poor and the middle class. Since my father’s untimely death in 2011, my family has been scraping by. My mom’s job provides health care, but there are numerous gaps, especially for mental health. I get sick to my stomach in fear of my sister losing coverage or running out of money for medication. She has the potential to do truly amazing things, impressing me and countless others everyday with her intelligence, her charm and her writing. Without help, she loses the chance to make the most of these gifts. I try not to think about it, but am constantly reminded of the hundreds of thousands of homeless and poor without any of the help Caity and I get.

This is a problem that cannot be solved by talking. This needs to be treated like the public-health crisis it is, and we need to put our money where our mouths are. Federal, state and local governments need to invest more in insurance and facilities for mental health, while schools need to provide counselors and educate students on psychiatric health like any other public-health problem. This needs support from our tax dollars, our charitable giving and our treatment of individuals with psychiatric problems.

The mentally ill are not just patients in hospitals. They’re the untapped potential in our schools and the silently suffering masses in homeless shelters. They’re the depressed suburban mom and the schizophrenic old woman struggling to maintain sanity. They’re our friends, our neighbors and our family, and they’re very, very sick.

They need help and we have the means to give it to them.

What are we waiting for?

James Brennan can be reached at jmbthree@umich.edu.