I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t have the strength to watch the Jaycee Lee Dugard interview with Diane Sawyer last week. Jaycee shared the story of her 18 years in captivity after being kidnapped by a convicted rapist and his wife. Beginning at age 11, she was tortured, raped and forced to give birth to two children in a backyard prison.
If I could barely stomach the interview, how did this young woman survive the ordeal with her poise and optimism so solidly intact?
“The good guys win,” she and her mother, who seem inseparable now, said together at the end of the interview.
It has not been a good week for victims of the mentally ill. Whatever your opinion on the Caylee Anthony story, a little girl lost her life and we may never know how. I don’t doubt mental illness also played a role her tragic death.
Reviewing these two cases and countless others, I wondered how long it would be before it becomes a top priority to examine the mental health of even the youngest members of society. And how long will it be before we can discuss mental health issues out in the open, with no shame?
If more people were screened and treated at an early age, perhaps people like Jaycee Lee Dugard and Caylee Anthony wouldn’t have had to endure all that they did.
Often the signs of mental illness are right in front of us, but even the use of medication to treat it is still spoken about in hushed whispers in supermarkets and living rooms.
So, why is it so hard to push through the shame of less-than-perfect psychological well-being? Perhaps it is how we were raised.
When I was growing up, I can’t remember anyone being on medication. There were kids who seemed to be troubled, and it ended there. Nobody discussed mental health issues beyond a whispered, single word: “crazy.”
As the years went by and I had my own children, something called ADD an ADHD started to become topics for debate. Judgment was levied against parents who gave medication to their children. “They’re just using that as a ‘crutch,’ ” people would often say.
I was one of those parents, sitting with three healthy children in my lap, judging other parents by thinking simplistically, “Perhaps those kids just need less time in front of the TV and more vegetables in their diet.”
What a moronic, ill-informed thing to profess, even privately to my trusted companions. My only defense is that I am human and prone to imperfection.
Ordinary citizens weren’t the only ones questioning medication for the new disorders that were being named each year. Some high-profile people were giving us their 2 cents, saying that mental imbalance was the very impetus for artistic genius. They warned that if we medicated these disorders, we would soon have an antiseptic, bland society with no color, no rhythm, no highs or lows to draw upon for artistic inspiration.
But what if that “artist” was your own child? What if he was suffering an imbalance he had no control over?
If there is a chance to treat that child, to ease his mental anguish with over-the-counter or prescription medication, wouldn’t any mother want to do that?
One of the most common responses I have heard to this question over the years is: “Oh, I don’t mind my child being on medication. But I don’t want him to use it as a crutch.”
Why on earth not? If your child had a broken leg, you would give him a crutch. If the same child is depressed, crying out for help, why isn’t using prescribed medication a logical choice?
I am not suggesting that children with problems left unmedicated will turn into the next child abductor or murderer. But what if we could turn back the clock on the Jaycee Dugard story? What if a young boy named Phil Garrido was provided a mental health screening, therapy and medication that would have given Jaycee a different story to tell today?
Would a little girl named Caylee Anthony still be alive had her mother been able to balance her emotional and psychological health at a young age?
I understand that people are cautious about medication. New medications seem to be popping up everywhere these days. We look back on our own childhood and reminisce about a simpler life, when we had lemonade stands, streets full of kids and safe walks to school without cell phones.
But if everyone’s life was so perfect back then, where did all the psychological problems now whispered about in living rooms and supermarkets begin? And, why do we so openly accept alcohol as an effective tool for soothing our senses but guard our prescription medication from public scrutiny?
I do not profess to be an expert—or anything close to one—in the field of psychology or medication. But I consider myself fortunate to have been able to loosen my grip on previous judgments against medication.
The fear of the unknown may be what makes a shift in perception difficult. How ironic that this same fear stopped Jaycee Lee Dugard from trying to escape the backyard she was held hostage in for 18 years.
“All I can tell you is that he (her captor) convinced me that the pain out there would be worse than the pain I knew, and I was terrified for my two children to endure that,” Jaycee said.
Obviously, we can forgive Jaycee for not executing her escape. She was tortured and brainwashed.
But if I learned something from Jaycee’s story, it is that fear of the unknown can stop us from making the right choice in a lot of instances.
I can’t help but wonder if, 100 years into the future, mental health screening will be able to flag more individuals in need of treatment before they cause irrevocable harm to others.
Even a slightly more open acceptance of medication to help balance a mental condition could save families from living under horrific circumstances.