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In My Words: An act of healing, a plea for change

In this column distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate, Tom Arcaro, professor of sociology, writes about the recent death of his daughter. 

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This column was distributed by the Elon University Writers Syndicate and was published in the Fayetteville Observer, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Durham Herald-SunWRAL and The Greensboro News & RecordViews expressed in this column are the author's own and not necessarily those of Elon University.

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By Tom Arcaro

On February 5th, 2018, an otherwise unremarkable day, 150,000 people died in various places around the world, and 28,000 died here in the United States. One of those deaths was my sweet 36-year-old daughter’s.  

‚ÄčThis young soul that I will never again see alive, died far too full of love and promise, far too blessed with creativity and passion, and taken far too soon from this world.

In the past decade, tens of thousands of Americans have been part of the growing opioid crisis. In the first months of 2018 alone there has been a 30 percent increase in the number of fatalities related to opioid abuse. One of those deaths was my daughter's.   

Thanks to the #MeToo movement, we are all painfully aware that there are far too many victims of rape and sexual abuse — at home and abroad.

My daughter, who was also a sister and a mother, was one of these victims.

Around the world, and very certainly here in the United States, mental illness is the neglected stepchild of the health care system. The numbers of misdiagnosed, undiagnosed, undertreated, even mistreated cases of mental illness are far beyond our ability to measure. 

My daughter's illness was one of those grim statistics.

Dealing with poverty challenges many societies, even the so-called rich "developed" ones.  Homelessness — the starkest aspect of poverty — is an ugly fact of American life. Recently highlighted by the United Nations, America's own brand of poverty includes on any given night over a half million without shelter. In the last year, my daughter, struggling to cope with her life’s hardships, was one of those.

Misuse of drugs, sexual abuse and mental illness often form a trifecta: each element is inseparable from the others, each contributing to a life filled with struggle.

But these are not intractable problems. With the right amount of compassion and political will, and with openness to different ways of thinking about them, the United States can make a lot of progress. Cultures can change: tweaking the edges of the legal system, the health care system and the social security system might make the sea-change in national values that we now sense into practical hard-edged improvement in thousands of lives. I weep that more responsive programs were not in place soon enough to save my daughter.  We must do better.

I think that we can take a policy page out of some many more progressive countries and perhaps decriminalize drug abuse and recognize it as part of a mental disorder that needs medical attention.

Mental illness is certainly not the unmentionable thing it used to be: many have stepped forward to tell their own harrowing stories. But there is still a very strong social norm not to talk about such things in polite company or to share personal and family struggles regarding mental illness. Too many still suffer in silence, fearing judgment, and social and economic penalties. Guilt, too, keeps many from acknowledging what’s wrong and from seeking help. My daughter, a beautiful, playful and deeply thoughtful soul who always wanted to "save the environment," was one of those.

The stigma of being raped and being sexually abused is also getting less extreme as we hear so many direct accounts from victims. But for so many women — and men — abuse festers as a hidden memory: excruciatingly real and impossible to escape, especially when exacerbated by — and causing new — mental health problems.

My daughter was a victim of rape and sexual abuse beginning in her mid-teens. She carried the anger, guilt and confusion into the rest of her life. 

I know that there are hundreds of thousands of parents, siblings and children around the world right now who feel the pain and sadness I’m experiencing as I write these words, many in my social circle have come forward and told me their stories. Each of us is coping in our own way. I am blessed to be part of a community that is nurturing and supportive, and I only hope that others feeling the same emotions as I have the same shoulders on which to cry.

Our nation needs to learn from this father’s anguish — about the ties that bind mental illness, opioid abuse, homelessness and sexual abuse. With more open, honest and robust discussions, we can find ways to mend the ripped fabric of so many lives. The gap between how we respond now, and how we should respond as a culture, is too vast. 

But we can close that gap when we grasp the fact that what we casually call our “big social problems” are composed of thousands of searing personal griefs. Just like mine.

Owen Covington,
Staff
4/12/2018 2:30 PM