• Why don't we cook food for the mentally ill? (Getty Images)
Meals are generally acknowledged to be the most practical offering to be made to sick people and their families. Not always though - certain illnesses do not elicit the casserole response.
By
Leah Wilson

15 Apr 2019 - 7:52 AM  UPDATED 15 Apr 2019 - 10:19 AM

I recently spoke to an old school friend who confided in me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. My automatic thoughts were “what can I do for her? What can I take to her?” A card? Flowers? A meal for her and her family?

Meals are generally acknowledged to be the most practical offering to be made to sick people and their families. Not always though - certain illnesses do not elicit the casserole response.

It was in the early 2000’s that I was introduced to the notion that mental illnesses are “no casserole illnesses”. In the ensuing years the stigma attached to some mental illnesses has reduced significantly. Depression and anxiety have assumed their rightful places in the public conversation. Others, such as schizophrenia and diseases of addiction remain widely misunderstood.

Meals are generally acknowledged to be the most practical offering to be made to sick people and their families. Not always though - certain illnesses do not elicit the casserole response.

This differential treatment of mental illnesses could be for a number of reasons. Perhaps there is an element of blame; “if he didn’t take all those drugs in his youth…”, “If she just exercised and stayed on her medication…”. If blame is a valid excuse, should we steer clear of the smoker with lung cancer, or the diver with a broken back?

Perhaps it is that the illness is long-term; he or she may have several disabling episodes each year. If you help once, it doesn’t follow that you have to do the same every episode.

“Well” people often struggle with the reality of relapse in mental illnesses. It’s the “here we go again” reaction. I doubt they would think or express this reaction to someone whose cancer has returned, or who broke another hip.

If it is fear of the unknown holding people back, they only need ask; the person with the illness, a nurse or doctor, Google if necessary. The old-fashioned notion of “crazy” people was abandoned long ago in the fields of psychology and psychiatry.

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Maybe people keep their distance because they feel that the relationship is one-way and they may get nothing back. In the acts of giving and receiving, both parties gain something; a sense of connectedness, compassion, or even just self-righteousness.

Mental illnesses can be both disabling and life threatening. Suicidal tendencies are a symptom of a number of mental illnesses, and most adults have attended the funeral of someone who died by suicide. It is admirable to remember and celebrate the life of the deceased, but it is better, and far more effective, to do something for him or her whilst they are alive. In the words of my late (tardy and dead) grandmother, “A rose for the living is better than a wreath for the dead.”

Groups of school mothers often band together and organise a roster covering meals and household tasks for another mother with a “casserole positive” illness. At any given time there are probably a number of other school mums who cannot get out of bed, let alone cook, clean and organise their families. They are totally disabled by their mental illness. A mentally ill person may not want the wider school, or other, community to know what is transpiring, but there are often one or two people who do know, and they can choose to make a difference.

Groups of school mothers often band together and organise a roster covering meals and household tasks for another mother with a “casserole positive” illness.

In his recent book, Lost Connections, Johann Hari identifies seven forms of disconnection that have greatly increased the prevalence of depression and anxiety in western societies. His solution to each is “reconnection”. He views reconnection to other people as key to minimising the prevalence and impact of these illnesses.

People with mental illnesses often retreat from social interaction. This reality shifts the responsibility for initiating positive interactions to the “well” people. If you ask someone out for coffee today and she says “no”, that is not a “no, never”. Keep trying. If the person does not want to go out, take something to her. A coffee, basic groceries, even a casserole. Healthy meals are particularly important when someone is unwell.

Your contribution, whether it be an outing, a meal, a household chore or a conversation, will have a far greater impact than is readily visible. The recipient may feel less isolated, less overwhelmed, or just less “blah”.

Illness is illness. Creating a hierarchy of disease to justify our response, or lack thereof, echoes archaic ideas of the superiority of a particular race or gender.

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