New: ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Institutionalization, Diet and Death

By Jack Bragen
Friday August 17, 2012 - 12:54:00 PM

Persons with mental illness who do not have a job tend to be sucked into institutionalization. The mental health treatment system has the ability to grab a person and keep them coming back. This is an entirely different subject than today's and deserves its separate column, which I will write in the future. 

Institutionalized persons with mental illness usually have an unhealthy diet. Mental health treatment practitioners seem to ignore health concerns of their clientele and to instead opt for foods that will pacify. If those being treated fall asleep in their chair every afternoon due in part to a heavy lunch, it makes them easier to manage. 

Hamburgers and hot dogs, burritos, sandwiches, Chinese food, pizza, and sugar-laden cake are all on the list. Never mind the fact that the clientele are becoming morbidly obese. Importance isn't given to our health. And to many who are in charge of us, it is not a big deal when one of us occasionally drops dead of a heart attack. 

Our lives are not taken seriously. We are treated as if we were a bunch of stuffed animals, pet hamsters, or maybe Teletubbies. This can be upsetting if we have the same fear of death as anyone else, or if we assign importance to our own lives despite being told we aren't important. 

We are being killed off by medication, high calorie diets, lack of exercise, and cigarette smoke. We do not receive the same level of preventative medicine as do the counselors who hold themselves superior to us. Nor is it common, when our heart disease has progressed, for us to receive the treatment intended for people who have already become cardiac patients. 

The mental health system won't help us with our physical health; therefore we must take steps on our own to remedy this problem. Trying to completely revise diet all at once tends to backfire and put us back at the beginning. Instead, what works is to make small, sustainable changes at a time, and make the transition gradual toward healthier habits. It begins with picking up one piece of fruit, or with eating one tomato or one green bean. 

Add some frozen vegetables to your pot of ramen. Remember that it takes the veggies longer to cook than the ramen, so put the vegetables in the boiling water first. Add some frozen peas to your mac and cheese. If hungry, pick up an orange a banana or an apple. Find out which kind of dressing will make a salad appetizing. Salad or pieces of fruit serve the purpose of filling you up and thus they displace higher calorie foods. If you must go through a drive thru, you can order one hamburger and not two or three. 

These changes may not create drastic weight loss. So far I have lost ten pounds. However, had I not made these small changes in diet, I could have gained more weight. The idea is to change eating habits permanently rather than going on an extreme diet that can't be maintained. And then the trend is to be healthier and slimmer over a long period of time. I have also managed to improve my blood sugar numbers so that I no longer qualify as diabetic. This is important for those mental health consumers who take Zyprexa or other "atypical" antipsychotics that raise blood sugar. (I also have cut out most of the ice cream and candy habit.) 

I have yet to defeat the cigarette demon, but when I do, you will hear about it! 

Our lives as persons with mental illness are as valuable as those of others. We deserve to live a long time and in good health. We can grant this to ourselves, given that we live in a situation where we control our diet. If a person is institutionalized, it is the responsibility of the caregiver to provide healthy food. This has not happened.