The Saratoga Sun -

Disease Du Jour

Erik the Read

 


I can’t open Facebook without a slew of ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos hogging my newsfeed. Depression, addiction, and Parkinson’s disease are all hot topics with the recent suicide of Robin Williams.

My question is, in our highly advanced society why does it still take gimmicks or high profile deaths to bring a moment of awareness to the many diseases that plague us?

My old friend Merriam Webster defines disease as “an illness that affects a person, animal, or plant: a condition that prevents the body or mind from working normally.”

If you follow that definition, a disease is a much more than what I thought growing up.

Things like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, fit my younger self’s idea of an illness. The loss of muscle function and eventual death due to motor neuron degeneration which is the hallmark of ALS is what I learned to be a classic disease along with cancer, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, Down syndrome and Parkinson’s disease among others.

In my adult life, I have come to understand, largely through personal experience, that depression, addiction, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other “social disorders” meet the criteria of a disease.

What concerns me is our pop-culture oriented society tends only to examine the needs of people suffering with diseases, either in readily accepted classifications or those often considered “social disorders,” for brief moments when a light is shined on them because of a monumental event or the affliction of a well-known personality.

A funny take on the ice bucket challenge portrays an impoverished African child asking, “So let me get this straight, you waste clean water as a challenge, in order to avoid raising money for charity?” To be fair it seems most folks both donate to ALS and do the ice water dump. In fact, according to the ALS Association “has received $79.7 million in donations compared to $2.5 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 25).” as a result of the Ice Bucket challenge. Maybe I’m too pessimistic and should just be happy a good marketing campaign is benefitting those who suffer from ALS.

I do wonder how long the effects of Robin Williams’ suicide will keep a light on depression and addiction, and possibly the correlation of Parkinson’s disease and depression.

Many people seem to think of substance abuse and addiction as a choice and not a disease. William’s battled addiction to substances much of his life and I find it encouraging that he appears to have died in sobriety, even if it was by his own hand.

If you don’t think addiction is a disease, I encourage you to read the book “Under the Influence: A Guide to the Myths and Realities of Alcoholism,” which shows that alcoholism, and by proxy, all substance addiction, meets the criteria of a disease. This includes physical changes in cellular structure and brain function akin to many readily accepted diseases.

The point being that addiction to a substance can often only be put into remission through medical and behavioral intervention similar to techniques used to put other diseases in remission.

According to many studies, more than half of people in U.S. prisons meet the criteria for substance addiction and mental health disorders, and they are responsible for most of the violent crimes committed.

Let’s consider another definition of disease, “a problem that a person, group, organization, or society has and cannot stop.” Mental health and substance abuse issues clearly fit this definition in our society.

Somehow I don’t see the equivalent of an ice bucket challenge for mental health and substance abuse coming around any time soon, even though treatment for individuals suffering from these problems would obviously benefit society at large.

Furthermore, this has been a problem in our Valley with suicides and deaths related to depression and substance abuse having happened several times in the last two years. In our rural area, it doesn’t take too many deaths to make a significant impact in our population.

I encourage everyone who reads this to take a moment to think about all of the diseases that have affected their life and find a way to give what they can afford, either through money, time or just simple moral support to help their family, friends, neighbors and society at large become healthier, safer and more accepted.

 

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