BRANDON — At school one day when Susan Wright’s son was young, he drew a picture of her with circles covering her arms.
Wight recognized immediately what those marks were. They were the scars and scabs where she had gouged her skin, and the physical evidence of the mental illness she had struggled with since she was a child.
“I was horrified,” Wright recalled.
“They’re all over me,” said the 51-year-old Brandon woman, turning her arms over to show open sores from where she continually picks at her skin.
That’s the name of the condition that developed during Wright’s 45-year struggle with mental illness. It’s part of a cluster of anxiety and panic disorders – a diagnosis she didn’t receive until March 2009 during a five-day stay at a local hospital.
Already anxious, Wright became increasingly distressed whenever she went home from work to a house that was falling apart. “Termites were flying out of the ceiling; the foundation was crumbling,” Wright said. “We couldn’t fix it, and we couldn’t sell it.”
And she couldn’t afford the mental health treatment she needed to cope.
Lack of insurance or money is often a barrier to care in Mississippi, said Sitaniel Wimberly, program director for the National Alliance on Mental Illness in Mississippi.
The America’s Mental Health 2018 survey by the national philanthropic Cohen Veterans Network and the National Council of Behavioral Health found one in four Americans said they had to choose between getting mental health treatment and paying for daily necessities. Of those with insurance, one in five said their policies forced them to choose between getting treated for a physical health problem or a mental health condition.
When Wright told her husband Kenny she wanted to die and needed to go to the hospital, he responded, “We can’t afford it,” he said.
Neither of them understood how serious her condition was, Wright said.
So, the next day, Wright went on to her job interpreting for deaf children. She can’t remember exactly what happened that day, but her supervisor took her to the hospital that afternoon, and she was admitted. Her employee assistance plan from work helped defray some of the cost.
“I remember how scared and terrified I was,” Wright said.
During her hospital stay, doctors first tried her on the antidepressant Paxil. It didn’t work. Eventually they put her on Neurontin, which is used to treat nerve pain, and Ativan, which lessens the intensity of anxiety and panic attacks. She takes the Neurontin twice a day and the Ativan as needed for especially anxious days.
She keeps bubble wrap around in her car and at home when she feels the urge to pick on her skin. “But you can do that in church. You can’t do that at work,” Wright said. So, she takes the medication.
“When you find something that works for you and your body, you need to stick with it,” Wright said.
Wright dates her problems with anxiety long before her diagnosis – to 1974, when she was 6 years old and her father left the family.
Today, Wright said she feels strong enough that she recently cut her psychiatrist visits from once every three months to once every six.
Her anxiety over her housing ended in late 2009 when a lay counselor at her church advised her and Kenny to let the bank foreclose on the house and find an apartment. They did. “We had never missed a payment up until that time,” Wright said.
But still cognizant of the couple’s finances, she is not in regular counseling because of the cost and having to take time off work.
Wright has always worked despite her mental health problems. She’s now employed with a firm that provides mental health services to elderly patients in nursing homes. Until now, she hasn’t confided much about her condition except to family and occasionally to a friend. “If I see someone struggling and I feel safe enough, I’ll tell them,” Wright said.
Wright urges anyone contemplating suicide to “get yourself checked in (to a hospital) immediately.” Many people may not know their employer has a plan that can defray the costs of treatment, she said. “If they have it, it needs to be posted just like the minimum wage signs are.”
Such lack of awareness of mental health resources is common, Wimberly said. “People are not informed on who to speak to if there’s a mental health issue. Professional help can be a therapist, support group, telehealth — they don’t even need to leave their home.”
This story was produced by the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable and empower citizens in their communities.