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Neurologically Unwell

…because that sounds so much more official than mental illness.

By Wendy Benner Miller

"Mental health" is a somewhat ironic phrase because it is typically used when discussing the antithesis of a healthy mind and symbiotic emotions. While many may argue that the goal, when using this phrase, is to prioritize the need for society to focus on the importance of a person’s emotional health in the same manner as one’s physical health, this is rarely the case. All too often, when the term "mental health" is brought up in conversation on its own, it elicits a visible response in one’s body language, a shifting in a seat, or an actual bristle or uncomfortableness, which can sometimes conjure stereotypical assumptions, eye rolls, and slang references.

What might be the biggest irony of all is that for most of history, mental illness was not considered an illness at all, but a choice based on controllable feelings or "bad" attitudes. Historically, being unwell was hidden or met with drastic measures (lobotomies, electroshock therapy, institutions, etc.) in an attempt to "fix" the person, as opposed to healing the problem. Despite all of our younger generation’s "inclusive conversations," "woke" awareness, and discussion points, society often still views the topic as taboo or something to talk about in whispers. Maybe if we coined a phrase that sounds more medically sound, the stigma and stereotypes of a mindset, versus an illness, would change a bit. Why not, neurologically unwell?

It seems to have taken the sudden and tragic deaths of many celebrities by suicide to pique our interest in this area, however brief. It seems that when Robin Williams died, an awakening of sorts commenced. Shock, disbelief, confusion, and heartache followed, with every media outlet and social media platform looking to explain the unfathomable concept that someone so idolized, wealthy, funny, and successful could possibly be unhappy. Unhappiness is just one of an array of normal feelings that we, as humans, have each experienced since our earliest memories. Unhappiness may also be a symptom or byproduct of mental illness, but it is definitely not an adequate or appropriate descriptor for something as significant as suicide. Not only has Hollywood seen an exponential increase in clinical depression and suicides over the past several years, our country has faced both an unprecedented number of documented suicide attempts, as well as deaths by suicide, in the last three years and they are continuing to increase at staggering percentages.

While we may not live in the bubble of Hollywood, our industry has certainly not been immune; if anything, the amount of mental illness incidents in occupied housing since COVID is unparalleled. Common area living during a global pandemic, with limited access to regular outlets or communal amenities, combined with quarantine orders and use restrictions, created the perfect storm for increased reports of neighborhood unrest.

Mental illness-related aggression, violence toward oneself, one’s family, or others catapulted. Every news outlet ran stories, while every manager fielded phone calls and emails, and much of this fed the politicization of a horrific virus that spanned the globe. Unfortunately, much of the fallout from the quarantine has not subsided as the world has opened back up; social anxiety has exponentially increased, as has the entitlement of many to use words as a form of weaponry, especially when hiding behind a screen of sorts. Management, vendors, and residents alike are facing more hostility than ever, and yet we still find that open discussion is often met with trepidation, fear, and judgement. When virtual meetings cannot be held and in-person meetings are required, security is being requested, or required, and managers are ranking their physical safety as a top workplace concern.

When the end result of an incident is suicide, or violence toward another, our rational brains want an explanation for the inexplicable. We crave understanding so we can process and move on; the problem with this approach is that we are looking for a rational understanding of an irrational action derived from a medically unwell individual. Continuing this pattern is only perpetuating the stigma, and quieting conversations. Posting suicide prevention numbers, green ribbon emogis, or creating national recognition days might be a very basic start; however, it doesn’t touch the surface for a person who is suffering.

Having sat on a Suicide Prevention Board of Directors for almost five years, I was astounded by many things. The number of lives saved by simply having a safe place to call and talk without judgement showed me that kindness and empathy are truly life-saving gifts that we can all give one another. The piece that I couldn’t quite get past, and one I know all too personally, is that the majority of those whose hard-wired brains have somehow misfired to the point of taking their life by suicide don’t have the conversation, leave the note, or make the call. Those are the ones I wanted, or maybe needed, to understand when I volunteered. Those are the ones I still don’t know how to reach, and for quite a while made me question my personal activism and volunteerism in this space.

What I do know is that one of the most amazing humans I have ever met – a brilliant, incredibly successful, charming, attractive, and adoring father, husband, brother, friend, industry expert – died by suicide almost 12 years ago, and people still look to me for answers that I don’t have. My children lost their father, my in-laws lost their son/brother, and I lost my husband to a death we could never have fathomed, and an illness that presented as insomnia and progressed toward depression. Clearly, it advanced into something we all missed back then, and still barely comprehend today. He was one of the best in his field, respected by every person who met him, and "had everything he ever dreamed of" (his words, not mine). All of this was robbed from him by an illness that was, unfortunately, in his mind, which is the infuriating reality of mental illness discussions.

Mental illness is an illness of the brain, an invisible tumor, of sorts, yet because it does not show up on a scan, the old adage of "it’s all in your head" is tough to argue. I share a piece of this story because it is part of the reason I was asked to write this article; when someone in our industry dies by suicide, I am often the first one called. I appreciate the care entrusted to me to write a letter to the family, post an impactful message to create a safe space for discussion, or add a post to a decades-old blog that has provided comfort for me and to others.

I often question the reason behind me being the first call. Statistically, I am 0-1 with seeing what was right in front of me, in the man so many admired, the hero of our children, and the man I loved for almost 20 years. I understand the intent of the reach-out often stems from a desire to understand the why behind the "decision," yet I think if we can look from a different perspective, it might change how we view suicide and increase our level of compassion, without answer-seeking.

Survival is one of our most basic instincts, with fight or flight being an innately human response to traumatic events. When one’s brain has altered so significantly that the innate response is end of life, that is a place that I thankfully and blessedly cannot, nor desire to, understand. To comprehend a death by suicide likely comes from self-experience alone, and some miracle story of survival that resulted.

I think most of us who have lost someone in this manner yearn for an explanation that resonates enough to grieve through to closure. What most of us in this club that no one wants to join experience is that you can grieve through a loved one’s death by suicide, but not get over it. The suicide-survivor thing is a real beast that can take on a life of its own, if one lets it. The responsibility, need, charge, gift, burden, to carry on a person’s memory into oblivion might be as irrational as the illness that caused the death, but it, too, is ever-present.

Where I have moved into today is a place that has less to do with understanding or acceptance, and more to do with creating a safe space, sharing a story of vulnerability, or simply sitting beside someone while they share theirs. To help others gain understanding, we need to keep talking about things that are uncomfortable or that we don’t understand. Let’s make changes before the next headline, as opposed to sharing outrage after. Just be there, remove the stigma surrounding one’s brain being neurologically unwell, and listen to what is often left unsaid, as that is sometimes more valuable than what was spoken.

A quote from the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen might be the best description I have to explain my need to spark a little bit of change around this topic, to alter the way we think about making a difference, the way we offer support, maybe even the efforts we make in our industry or community to create conversation or a safe space. When I heard it, I turned to the man who now owns my heart, accepts its scars, allows a bit of space for the broken grief, and simply loves us all in it, and through it, and said "This is my why."

No one deserves to be forgotten.
No one deserves to fade away.
No one should come and go.
And have no one know he was ever even here.
No one deserves to disappear.

-Steven Levensen, in Dear Evan Hansen


With her extensive history in community association and multifamily residential housing, Miller has combined her knowledge in both property management and construction to successfully immerse herself into the construction defect world and provide multifaceted support to the general construction industry, including assisting legal teams on the construction defect process, when necessary. She is currently vice president of sales for CAM Construction & Painting and is serving on the CAI-Bay Cen Board of Directors. Benner was recently elected to the CAI National Business Partner Council and is the vice president of Westcon Construction Consultants.



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