ON MENTAL ILLNESS: The Facts of Aging

Jack Bragen
Friday August 21, 2015 - 03:43:00 PM

Persons with mental illness often do not live very long. I have known several who died in their forties or early fifties through natural causes, while others have died, even younger, through suicide.  

Persons with mental illness often have health issues related to psychiatric medications, or due to concomitant effects of behavior created by the illness. For example, it is harder for some persons with mental illness to maintain good dental hygiene; bad teeth affect overall health.  

If we make it to and beyond middle age, we are faced with the same basic facts that affect all forms of life--the organism grows old, deteriorates, and dies. It is almost like a rite of passage, when and if we get to the point where we must face the effects of age. When and if we reach fifty, we probably become more conscious that we won't be here forever.  

What can we do about this? Well, we could try to take better care of ourselves, prevent excessive intake of food, not smoke, and get exercise. This could greatly extend our lifespans. Secondly, we should try to enjoy life under whatever circumstances currently exist. We do not always have the power to change life circumstances for the better. Yet we could mess up our current circumstances and make them a lot worse. Preventing the latter of these is probably a good idea.  

About enjoyment--it can help if we internally grant ourselves permission to enjoy things. If we think everything is awful, and we must fix things before we can be happy, then we are postponing happiness--usually a bad idea.  

When my father (not mentally ill) got older, he began to do things he had been postponing because he didn't know how much longer he would be around. He traveled. He visited relatives on the east coast. And I don't know what else he did, I can't ask him.  

Persons with psychiatric illness have a life expectancy about twenty-five years less than average. I know a woman in her early fifties who is badly crippled, must walk with a walker, and is physically falling apart because, for years, she believed she didn't have to deal with her diabetes. Then I look at myself--I am overweight, and I have other health risks, including a number of risk factors for a heart attack. Yet, so far so good. If I were a millionaire, I would get a tummy tuck and see a personal trainer.  

It can require some amount of bravery to acknowledge that certain things aren't likely to get better.  

From a more accepting perspective, we could view mortality as a safety valve. By this, I mean that nothing lasts forever, not the good things we cherish, or the bad things we dread.  

Unless your name is Nostradamus, you cannot predict the future. I look forward to seeing everything change, and to seeing small miracles and the unexpected. Life is truly a gift, and it would be foolish not to enjoy it.