“Like a thief in the night” is an idiom that has been used by many in songs, speeches, and documents for thousands of years. It is quite possible this figurative phrase originated in the Bible where in 1 Thessalonians 5:2 it says, “the Day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” Like authors and songwriters preceding me, I will reuse this idiom. I have seen how Mental Illness is like a thief in the night, because, like a thief entering a home in the dark of night, Mental Illness unexpectedly robs many of their abilities and skills without warning.
As parents, we can be known to exaggerate our children’s abilities. It is no exaggeration, however, that my oldest son, Aaron, was an extremely good artist. At the young age of three years old, he was drawing cartoons like a professional cartoonist. He was gifted with the ability to reproduce well-known cartoon figures such as the Mario Brothers characters. His drawings would start off as a few lines and swoops and suddenly a perfectly drawn Mario, Koopa Troopa, Bowser, or Daisy would materialize on his sketch pad. As Aaron grew older his artistic skills matured and he won awards because of them. As a young teenager, he especially liked to draw pretty girls and baseball players.
Almost immediately after we realized Aaron was suffering from a mental illness, we could see a decline in his ability to draw, and over the past 23 years of suffering from a very difficult-to-treat case of schizophrenia, Aaron can barely draw at all. Aaron drew the picture on the far left about a year before he started exhibiting symptoms of a mental illness. He drew the picture in the middle several years ago, and the picture on the far right was drawn in the past couple of years. Aaron hasn’t picked up a pencil to even attempt to draw a picture in more than four months now. His mental illness continues to rob him time and again of not only his ability to draw but his ability to write, read and even remember what day of the week it is sometimes.
While Aaron is impacted more than anyone by what he’s lost because of schizophrenia, we’re all impacted indirectly. Aaron was on a trajectory to becoming a very productive member of society. He was well above average intellectually, and when he was 13 years old he enjoyed programming computer games. Now, however, instead of contributing to our society as a software engineer for a computer gaming company, he is one of more than 12,000 people under the age of 65 receiving Social Security Disability benefits. Aaron wants to work, but schizophrenia has robbed him of this privilege.
Thankfully, mental illness doesn’t impact everyone as significantly as it has Aaron. However, about 20% of all adults regardless of gender, race, age, or socio-economic background in the United States suffer from a mental health disorder, and the impact on the economy is staggering. A report commissioned by the American Heart Association CEO Roundtable identifies an annual cost of $210 billion to the American economy due to depression alone. Because so many mental health disorders go unreported, this cost is undoubtedly far greater than what was identified.
With such staggering costs to the economy and the volumes of adults, not to mention children and adolescents, affected by mental illness it is surprising how little the federal government invests in Mental Health Research. While the government has increased the budget for the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in 2022 to $2.14B, it is still a fraction of what is allocated to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) during the same time period, $6.9B. I am not advocating that less should be allocated to NCI, but rather that more attention and resources should be applied to preventing and managing mental illness in the United States, especially because it impacts everyone either directly or indirectly. This will require an increase in resources from both the public and private sectors.
Minimizing the effects of mental illness for individuals, their families, and the entire nation is something I’m confident most will agree is of the utmost importance. It is imperative that we come together as a nation to secure mental health care for everyone in our communities so we don’t lose a single mind to this thief in the night, mental illness.