Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Can we also learn from this poor man's death by confronting our national ignorance of serious mental illness?

While Akmal Shaikh's execution by the Chinese authorities was vicious, barbaric and medieval in nature, we do need to confront the failures in our own country that allowed this tragedy to happen.

I am not fully up to date with the extent of education on mental illness in schools or the level of support teachers and other professionals in contact with young people have so that they might intervene in the course of someone's mental illness. I do however know that 12 years ago when my brother was behaving strangely, my family was absolutely failed by the education system (my parents were both secondary school teachers), the primary care system, and our own ignorance of mental illness. I was only able to suggest schizophrenia to my parents after a lecture about mental illnesses in my first year Psychology class at university. From what I recall, my suggestion didn't do us much good as my family's GP at the time expressed the opinion that he "seemed fine the last time I saw him". My brother went on to have three serious psychotic episodes involving hospitalisation in the next five years, attempted suicide on at least one occasion, and is now living alone with his delusions and no ambitions for employment some 12 years later.

In cold economic terms, my brother should be an asset not a burden to society. He was an international volleyball player when he became ill, and later achieved a 1st part-time at Glasgow University. I can't know for certain that early intervention in his illness would have allowed him to achieve the level of success he was destined for, but I'm sure a compassionate ear such as is presented by the early intervention programme presented in the link below, would have done wonders for the whole family in limiting the distress his illness caused.

Akmal Shaikh was well into middle-age when his symptoms first became apparent, so I can only blame our national collective ignorance of mental illness in granting the Chinese the ability to state that he had "no previous medical record" of mental illness. That is of course no excuse for the act of the Chinese in executing this man, but we need to take away much more from this sorry episode than writing another dark chapter in China's book of human rights abuses.

The job of a politician should not be to win votes, to make people richer, or pander to tabloid journalists. The job of a politician is to create and safeguard happiness, and I believe programmes such as this one in Maine can contribute immensely to that:

Early intervention in all illnesses can save lives. From personal experience, early intervention in mental illness has the potential to prevent emotional distress of the highest order.


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