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Life at the intersection of health and mental health-Part 1

November 20, 2013
by Sue Bergeson
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Having lived through recovery from mental illness, I never thought I'd face a second recovery, from cancer

I am a consumer of mental health services who has been serving in leadership roles in nationally facing organizations for many years.  I currently work as the VP of consumer and family affairs for a large managed care company (not named here because my remarks are not a reflection of that organization’s thinking, policies or programs).  Many people in my family live with mental health issues.  My sister died by suicide. 

I struggled for years through the deep, bone-raking anguish of my mental health challenges, moving finally into a place of recover. Now, I face a recovery challenge of a different kind. This blog reflects my thoughts as a consumer of both mental health and physical health challenges as I once again move down the path of recovery in a new and different arena.

Early in 2013, I was diagnosed with not one, but two, different forms of cancer: breast cancer and uterine cancer.  Throughout this year, I’ve been able to do some thinking about how different  - and how similar – experiences in the worlds of mental and physical healthcare can be. Here are some initial thoughts.  

On diagnosis:  My recent cancer diagnoses came as complete surprises, based on the results of routine tests. (Let me tell you that, given my recent track record, I am NOT enthusiastic about going for my “routine” colonoscopy.)  Literally my first thought was, “Hmmm . . . looks like I am not going to beat the odds after all.”  By “odds,” I mean the odds, determined in a national study, that as an individual with a serious mental illness, I am statistically likely to die some 25 years earlier than individuals in the general population.

My second thought, hard on the heels of the first one, was , ”I never thought that I would die this way.” Of course, cancer is not a death sentence. And, neither is having a mental health condition. But the disability rates for those of us living with mental health issues are actually greater than those of people living with cancer.

I find it interesting that the cancer diagnosis seemed so much scarier to me. Is this because of stigma? Is this because cancer is an illness we are conditioned to take more seriously? 

Maybe, I’ve decided, it is because prior to my cancer diagnoses, I never felt that anything was wrong.  Long before I received a mental health diagnosis, I felt, maybe even knew, that something was wrong. So, when I received my mental health diagnosis, I felt some sense of relief. Finally, there was a name that I could place on the symptoms that I had been experiencing, a name that gave me a place to begin in seeking treatment, a name that would enable me to act and do something about it.

One other thought here:  I mentioned my upcoming colonoscopy and the fact that I’m not looking forward to it. But, our understanding of medicine and medical diagnosis is such that we accept routine tests – even tests that look for awful things like cancer – because we believe that knowing about these things early and starting treatment as soon as possible is the best thing that we can do.

Interestingly, I do not recall ever being asked about my mental health as a part of any routine medical office visit or screening program.  

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Thanks so much, Sue, for this blog and best wishes for a healthy recovery. You've provided so many lessons for how mental healthcare organizations can improve our services. I once received a comment from someone in our waiting room who was not my patient, saying how important it was that I smiled at everyone when I came by the waiting room. Your voice is a most needed one.

As a fellow blogger, I'm looking forward to hearing more from you, especially about your own leadership experiences. I can be contacted also at rustevie@mac.com.

Steve Moffic

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Sue Bergeson

Serves as the Vice President of Consumer and Family Affairs for a large managed care company

@@BergesonSue

Sue Bergeson is a behavioral health consumer and a family member of behavioral health consumers...