Mental Illness and the New Moon Shot

By Don Rollins

Come most Sundays, there they are. The ones for whom just showing up is a moral victory. They don’t come for a fashion show and they don’t come to play church: they come for respite.

They come to touch and be touched by a transcendent something or Somebody. They come to hear – in word, song and silence – a simple affirmation that goes something like: You are more than a diagnosis and a number on a pill bottle. You’re a child of the universe, the stuff of the stars. And most of all, you’re not alone.

I suppose we could just as easily be talking about AIDS or cancer. But we’re not. We’re talking about the millions of people who live with mental illness; some firsthand, some secondhand and some, both.

We’re talking about the soon-to-retire lawyer who wakes up every morning resentful she didn’t die in her sleep. The thirty-something who works a UPS third shift and can’t concentrate because he’s on his third course of meds in six months. The college student whose buzz is still wearing off, so drunk and high was he again last night. The upscale couple who just found out that their daughter is a cutter. (Note: These are composite, not actual parishioners.)

These are some of the broken brave, America’s walking wounded. Because they give me entry into their lives, I know that they rise and go to bed with a myriad of conditions, some life-threatening. And I know that they keep their suffering under wraps for fear of being discounted, pitied or discriminated against.

So, like the other caregivers in their lives, I do what I can and I hitch my star of hope to the studies that assure me that many of them will maintain, even improve. And then I grieve knowing that a haunted, precious few will suicide.

We should, all of us, be encouraged by the considerable advances in the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The people described above have many more resources available to them than their parents and grandparents. But the brain research behind it all is a nascent, if developing science. We’re still throwing often exploratory technology and our best studies at the biochemical wall to see what sticks. And yet for now that’s exactly what we ought to be doing.

Nobody on the national scene gets that like former Rep. Patrick Kennedy. Having seen and lived his share of Camelot’s shadow side (depression, bipolarity and addiction) the guy has for the past decade been fairly channeling the tireless Paul Wellstone when it comes to mental illness parity and study.

And he’s still at it. In a CNN documentary aired in May, Kennedy lit up the research labs, Congress and even mental illness advocates for their lack of urgency regarding brain research. He challenged them to get behind his “One Mind” campaign – a blend of sustained public and private funding on par with his uncle’s New Frontier –a program that he likened unto the “new moon shot.”

There are long-term financial incentives to go with the “One Mind” appeal to compassion. For the government, it’s about decreased services and increased productivity. (It doesn’t get much more Keynesian than investing in jobs, tea partiers.) And for Big Research/Big Pharma it’s all about the patents: technology and drugs.

So who can say for sure if Patrick Kennedy’s name and past public struggles will goose the requisite number of neuroscientists, politicians, underwriters and universities toward critical mass? And even if his idea gets that kind of initial backing, would the primary stakeholders hang in?

All we know at this point is that he has a lot riding on it. He and the folks out there in the pews.

Rev. Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister in Raleigh N.C. Email

From The Progressive Populist, August 1, 2011

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