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Perception of Mental Illness

Updated on May 9, 2015

Society’s perception of mental illness negatively impacts people who suffer from mental ailments, to the point that the inflicted are forever labeled as mentally ill and discriminated against. Many mentally ill patients face discrimination that inhibits their ability to return to their everyday life. In the book Veronika Decides to Die the characters; Eduard, Veronika, and Mari, suffer from society’s negative views towards mental illness. The book Veronika Decides to Die shows how society’s negative perception of mental illness can be harmful to mentally ill people.

Eduard, a main character in Veronika Decides to Die, was confined to a mental hospital so that his condition does not destroy his father’s career. Eduard’s father is an accomplished Yugoslavian ambassador, who had plans to set his son up to follow in his footsteps as an ambassador. After being in a bicycle accident Eduard decided he wanted be an artist in order to paint a series of paintings he called “visions of paradise”. Eduard refused to give up on his “visions of paradise” until his father said, “If you really love us, do as I ask. If you don’t love us, then carry on as you are now” (Coelho 189). Eduard decided to give up on his painting because “if he continued as he was, his mother would fade away with grief, his father would lose all enthusiasm for his career, and both would blame each other for failing in the upbringing of their beloved son” (Coelho 190). Eduard could not handle his father’s ultimatum and decided that he no longer wanted anything to do with love if it kept him from his chosen path. Five months later when Eduard was diagnosed with schizophrenia, his parents decided it was too problematic to look after a mentally ill Eduard and admitted him to Villete, a mental hospital.

After being admitted to Villete, society would always view and judge Eduard as mentally ill or insane. As such, Eduard’s father abandoned all chance of Eduard becoming an ambassador. Dr. Igor thinks, “as far as the ambassador was concerned, it didn’t matter whether his son looked well or not; he had no intention of taking him to official functions or having Eduard accompany him to various places in the world where he was sent as a government representative. Eduard was in Villete, and there he would stay forever” (Coelho 73). Society’s perception of mental illness causes Eduard to be forever labeled as mentally ill. Even Eduard’s own father has decided that because of his illness, which the ambassador partially caused, Eduard is not fit to be a part of society. The ambassador eternally abandoned his son at Villete due to his mental illness.

Eduard’s mental condition is known as schizophrenia; “Schizophrenia is a psychosis, a type of mental illness in which a person cannot tell what is real from what is imagined. At times, people with psychotic disorders lose touch with reality” (WebMD). Schizophrenia cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. There are many different treatment options which could have been tried on Eduard instead of electric shock treatments. With treatment, Eduard may have been able to rejoin society and travel around the world with his father. His father, however, did not truly want Eduard to be treated because if Eduard was treated then he could leave Villete. If Eduard left Villete and reentered society, then the stigma of his mental illness would forever follow him, and through Eduard, it would affect the ambassador.

Veronika is a 24 year old Slovenian woman who attempted, but failed to kill herself. Veronika abstained from seeking mental help because of the stigma that would shadow her if she sought help. Veronika took the pills that would kill her for three reasons; the first was “everything in her life was the same and, once her youth was gone, it would be downhill all the way, with old age beginning to leave irreversible marks, the onset of illness, the departure of friends. She would gain nothing by continuing to live; indeed, the likelihood of suffering would only increase” (Coelho 7). The second reason was, “everything was wrong, and she had no way of putting things right—that gave her a sense of complete powerlessness” (Coelho 7). The third reason was she hated herself for feeling an “eternal fear of being wrong, of not doing what others expect” (Coelho 66). After she takes an overdose of sleeping pills, Veronika wakes up in Villete and realizes that someone had saved her against her will. In Villete, Veronika is informed that her “heart was irreversibly damaged, and soon it will stop beating altogether” (Coelho 28). While in the mental hospital, Veronika realizes that there are sides to herself that she could love. In Villete, Veronika realizes that she does not want to die because there are parts of herself that she does like.

If society did not perceive mental illness so negatively, then Veronika may have sought help in the form of counseling before trying to kill herself. The Suicide Center at the University of Illinois states that “the common link among people who kill themselves is the belief that suicide is the only solution to a set of overwhelming feelings” (Counseling Center). This holds true for Veronika who decided to kill herself because she was afraid of how her life would turn out and was overwhelmed with helplessness. The Suicide Center also says that, “Most suicide crises are time-limited and based on unclear thinking. Persons attempting suicide want to escape from their problems. Instead, they need to confront their problems directly in order to find other solutions-solutions which can be found with the help of concerned individuals” (Counseling Center). If Veronika had sought help, she could have dealt with her feelings before she reached the point where she saw suicide as the only option. I believe that Veronika did not seek help because she was afraid of the repercussions of expressing to someone that she felt like killing herself and she would always be labeled a potential suicide. After her internment, Veronika was labeled for her suicide attempt. Dr. Igor calls Veronika, “the young women who tried to commit suicide” (80). Veronika wanted there to be minimal fuss over her, going so far as to obtain sleeping pills so as to not make a scene by cutting her wrists. Her seeking mental help would have forced people to notice her and would label her mentally unstable and a suicide risk.

Mari is a main character in Veronika Decides to Die; she is a former lawyer who suffered from panic attacks and was fired as a result. Mari first started to have panic attacks after she began to consider retiring from her job in order to volunteer with the Red Cross. Mari’s panic attacks continued to the point where she was forced to take thirty days of unpaid leave from her job so that she could have medical testing. Subsequent to the thirty days, one of Mari’s colleagues advised her that she had two options, “Either get some treatment or continue being ill” (Coelho 125). A month later Mari took a taxi to Villete, “where Dr. Igor—explained that it was merely a panic disorder” (Coelho 126). Once Mari began to receive treatment her panic attacks and symptoms diminished until they fully disappeared.

During the time it took to get Mari fully treated, the story of Mari’s internment in Villete spread all over Ljubljana. Mari’s colleague came to Villete to suggest that she retire from her legal career. It was clear to Mari that the reason her colleague was suggesting she retire was that society was in no way willing “to entrust their affairs to a lawyer who had been a mental patient” (Coelho 127). Mari’s colleague sums up society’s views towards mental illness perfectly when he says, “We’re allowed to make a lot of mistakes in our lives… except the mistake that destroys us” (Coelho 128). Two days later another attorney visits Mari with an application for divorce from her husband. In the divorce agreement her husband states that he will continue to pay Mari’s medical bills for as long as she is in Villete. Society’s negative perception of mental illness cost Mari her job, her dignity, and her family.

In Mari’s case, there is no reason why she could not return to her job. Panic attacks are extremely scary for the women experiencing them because they can include symptoms like, “difficulty breathing, palpitations, chest pain, and panicky feelings that she is ‘going to die’” (Slater, Daniel, and Banks 200). Panic attacks are frightening and difficult to work around when one is having an attack, but they are also easily treatable. Panic disorder can be treated using medical means like serotonin injections, norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors, and benzodiazepines. Panic disorders can be managed using psychotherapy, also known as behavior therapy. Psychotherapy is meant to help the patient understand their panic attacks and teach them how to cope with the attacks. In Veronika Decides to Die Dr. Igor writes Mari a prescription for medicine to treat her panic disorder. With medication there is no reason that, after an adjustment period, Mari could not return to her job as a lawyer. There also was no reason why her husband should have divorced Mari because of such an easily treatable disorder.

In Veronika Decides to Die, society’s negative perception of mental illness causes Eduard, Veronika, and Mari to suffer unnecessarily. Eduard is locked away in a mental hospital with no hope of release so that his condition does not ruin his father’s career. Veronika is driven to suicide out of the fear of not behaving in a way that society expected of her. She is then forever labeled as “the young women who tried to commit suicide” (Coelho 80). Mari is forced into retirement from her practice and divorced by her husband. It is essential that society learns not to discriminate against mental illness; there is no reason that a medically treated person should not be allowed to return to their everyday life without the stigma of mental illness following them.

Works Cited
Coelho, Paulo. Veronika Decides to Die. New York: Harper Perenial, 2001. Print.
Slater, Lauren, Jessica Henderson. Daniel, and Amy Elizabeth. Banks. The Complete Guide to Mental Health for Women. Boston, MA: Beacon, 2003. Print.
"Counseling Center » Suicide Prevention." Counseling Center » Suicide Prevention. UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS, n.d. Web. 23 Nov. 2012. <http://www.counselingcenter.illinois.edu/?page_id=148>.

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