On Mental Illness: the Effects of Collective Disasters

By Jack Bragen
Monday March 21, 2011 - 03:01:00 PM

I had a friend/adversary in the mid- 1990’s with whom I sometimes shared delusions. We had a tendency to get one another into trouble. His delusions were mostly of a military-government-secret agent theme. When he was well, this man was very kind, and worked in the psychiatric self-help field to help others. He had gotten well after a lengthy stint of wild mania in which he frightened a number of people, including me, and in which he was fairly destructive. He was back at work, and I didn’t have much contact with him because of how bad our encounters had been. 

Then came 9/11. 

Within a month, my friend-adversary was back on the street, apparently psychotic and self medicating with alcohol. I feared the exposure to the hot sun wasn’t good for him. 

Within another couple of months, I was shocked to hear of his passing. He had died apparently of a heart attack, but I blame his mental illness as the cause of death. On the one hand, I wouldn’t need to fear him making my life difficult any longer; but I surely hadn’t wished him dead. 

The nation under attack as well as the prospect of going to war, and the theme of espionage running through all this, may have served to validate his delusional system. Beneath it all, he may also have been a sensitive man, and that could make him disturbed by the 9/ll tragedy and by prospect of going to war. He responded by having another psychotic episode, at a time in his life in which his body could no longer handle the stresses. 

Disasters may affect those with mental illness more than those without. My wife, recounts that when she was first mentally ill the hospital was showing operation desert storm on all the televisions there. It had a bad effect on her at the time; she believed she was in the middle of the war zone. This was due to the psychosis that was affecting her, and due to the brutal nature of war. 

The nuclear catastrophe now taking place in Japan, and also the earthquake and tsunami there, have been a provocative subject for my sensitivities. I have had a phobia of nuclear annihilation since childhood. When I was psychotic, many of the delusions were of a nuclear war / radioactivity theme. And also, just as an ordinary citizen, my heart goes out to the people in Japan who have been killed, and to those in that country who are suffering through this disaster. This is Japan’s biggest catastrophe since WWII and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. When I attended a meeting of a bipolar group in Walnut Creek recently, there was some mention of the incident, and someone said there was a run on potassium iodide. 

I am not completely sure of how other people, mentally ill or not, are reacting to this incident, but for me at least, it is very heart rending. For those readers of this column who have a mental illness, I suggest taking extra care of yourselves at this time of international stress.