The question of which is more important, a person’s right to privacy or a family’s right to know when a loved one might be in danger because of mental health issues, has resurfaced.
On March 1, Berks County resident Amy Sell, who’d struggled with various forms of mental illness for years, died of cardiac arrest caused by abuse of difluoroethane, a chemical used in spray cleaners. Her death was ruled accidental.
Two weeks earlier, Sell had told her mother, Kay Kramer, in a text, “I want to die.”
Since then, Kramer said she has been telling Sell’s story to prompt legislative changes that would have allowed Kramer to have her daughter involuntarily committed and given the mother access to Sell’s mental health information.
Clinicians and other mental health professionals can offer scientific definitions of depression and severe mental illness, but to many it remains a mystery.
A compelling description comes from the novelist William Styron, who chronicled his own struggle against depression’s ravaging of the soul in his bestselling book “Darkness Visible.” “The pain of severe depression is quite unimaginable to those who have not suffered it,” Styron wrote, “and it kills in many instances because its anguish can no longer be borne. The prevention of many suicides will continue to be hindered until there is a general awareness of the nature of this pain.”
Styron spent the last part of his life speaking widely about his depression, often counseling others.
In Sell’s case, it appears that her mother knew something terrible was going to happen. What’s needed is a system that listens to a mother who receives a text such as the one Sell sent, if only to allow a mental health professional to intervene.
“If the mentally ill aren’t making good decisions, their caregivers and family members need to be allowed to somehow be a part of care decisions,” Kramer said.
Help could come from several legislative remedies in Harrisburg and Washington that emerged after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Help also can come by listening closely to the sufferers so we can understand the illness that strikes one in 17 adults.
“Depression is the flaw in love,” wrote Andrew Solomon about his depression in his book “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.” “When it comes, it degrades one’s self and ultimately eclipses the capacity to give or receive affection. It is the aloneness within us made manifest, and it destroys not only connection to others but also the ability to be peacefully alone with oneself.
“In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident. The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”
As a community, we can correct that flaw by joining Kramer in calling for legislative and other measures that would allow family members to intervene when the people they love and know best behave in ways that threaten their well-being or pose a danger to themselves or others.
We must listen to the cries for help from the mentally ill no less urgently than we would listen to the cancer patient. We must also heed the survivors of the mentally ill whose loved ones have succumbed to the darkness.