depression and bipolar

The Biggest Health Problem We’re Terrified to Talk About

I’ll be 75 years old this year. My wife, Carlin, will be 80. Even our 5 children are rushing past mid-life. We’ve all had health challenges that we talk about with family, friends, and our health-care providers. But there’s one problem that remains hidden. It’s depression and bipolar disorder. My father suffered from them for most of his life. I have as well. I write about the pain, suffering, and healing in my new book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound which launched on Father’s Day. You can still get the free chapter, “Mad Father, Dutiful Son,”

Dhruv Khullar, M.D., M.P.P. is a physician at New York-Presbyterian Hospital and a researcher at the Weill Cornell Department of Healthcare Policy and Research. Dr. Khullar reports recent research demonstrating the following surprising facts:

Americans with depression, bipolar disorder or other serious mental illnesses die 15 to 30 years younger than those without mental illness — a disparity larger than for race, ethnicity, geography or socioeconomic status.

We think it’s a big deal when we learn that men die, on average, 7 years sooner than women. But I was totally blown away by the 15 to 30-year loss of life for people with serious mental illness. There’s no risk factor I’m aware of that is responsible for this huge difference in our healthy life-span.

Dr. Khullar offers an example from a recent case. “My patient had struggled with bipolar disorder his entire life, and his illness dominated our years together. He had, in a fit of hopelessness, tried to take his life with a fistful of pills. He had, in an episode of mania, driven his car into a tree. But the reason I now held his death certificate — his sister and mother in tears by his bed — was more pedestrian: a ruptured plaque in his coronary artery. A heart attack.”

National conversations about better mental health care tend to follow a mass shooting or the suicide of a celebrity. These discussions obscure a more rampant killer of millions of Americans with mental illness: chronic disease.

“We may assume that people with mental health problems die of ‘unnatural causes’ like suicide, overdoses and accidents,” says Dr. Khullar, “but they’re much more likely to die of the same things as everyone else: cancer, heart disease, stroke, diabetes and respiratory problems. Those with serious mental illness are more likely to struggle with homelessness, poverty and social isolation. They have higher rates of obesity, physical inactivity and tobacco use. Nearly half don’t receive treatment, and for those who do, there’s often a long delay.”

And unfortunately, we’re creating more mental and emotional problems with our present government policies to separate children from their parents. Dr. Colleen Kraft, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, after watching a sobbing toddler with no parent to console her in a detention center in Combes, TX, told CNN: “This is something that was inflicted on this child by the government, and really is nothing less than government-sanctioned child abuse.”

Journalist Jane Ellen Stevens pulls no punches in telling the truth about our government’s actions: “Those who separate immigrant children from parents might as well be beating them with truncheons.”

Even in these days of more enlightened understanding and treatment for mental illnesses there is still tremendous stigma. It took me many years to “come out” and talk about my own challengeswith irritability, angerdepression, and bipolar disorder. It’s time we told the truth, protected the children, and shifted our focus to bringing about real mental health in our country.

I’ve been working in the health-care field for more than 40 years and specialize in working with men who are irritable, angry, and depressed. It’s become my life work. But even with my years of experience I didn’t realize the huge health risk we incur when we suffer from untreated mental illness. I’ll be offering an on-line class for men and women who are dealing with these issues in their family. If you’re interested in learning more email me and put “anger class” in the subject line.

I appreciate your comments.

This article first appeared on Jed’s blog.

Photo by Fernando @cferdo on Unsplash

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