De-stigmatizing mental illness
This post has been a long time coming. You see, my mother has schizophrenia, or at least has had recurring paranoid delusions for twenty-five years or more. She is one of the two million Americans who have schizophrenic disorders. Like many with a mental illness, she can be a bit slippery when it comes to exact diagnosis and effective treatment. Yet, her ongoing conspiracy theories, “divine” revelations, inability to exhibit appropriate behavior and wide-reaching, paranoid worldview leave little question of her disorder. She perceives herself as the keystone in underground sting operations. A Scully without a Mulder. A less well-travelled Jason Bourne. Yet, when she is faithfully medicated, she functions with moderate success.
I try to be open with others about my mother’s schizophrenia. The response is as fascinating as it is predictable. People visibly recoil and their eyes widen as the conversation stops, all from the statement “My mother has schizophrenia” within the context of an ongoing conversation. It may be my matter-of-fact tone that is surprising, but that’s what it is in my life: a matter of fact.
An estimated 20% of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness or disorder, Indeed, mental illness is a matter of fact for a considerable number of families. The irony of mental illness stems from the feelings of isolation regarding a fairly common problem, exacerbated by lack of discussion of the “uncivil”, distasteful topic.
Why do I muddy the air with speaking my simple truth? I do so because I believe that de-mystifying mental illness is an essential component of funneling help to the afflicted and their families. If we don’t know how many people need psychological services how can we hope to provide them? Providing treatment is undeniably a multi-faceted problem, but when we can’t talk openly about the problem we perpetuate systemic ignorance and denial which creates unnecessary barriers.
We are not a culture that readily seeks help for psychological issues. Is there a culture in the world that encourages this, or do we all ignore the elephant in the collective room?
The stigma against mental illness is wide-reaching. People are ashamed to get psychological help for themselves, and reluctant to get help for loved ones. As a culture, we are largely ignorant of the diversity of mental illness. Family members ignore warning signs when loved ones act erratically. Films like ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ instill the fear of being locked away. Layers are added upon layers until the problem becomes convoluted and buried.
Centuries ago, the mentally ill were believed to be witches or possessed by an evil force, with many slain as a result. Sadly, the premise of these ideas linger. The pronouncement “schizophrenics are evil” shows in many ways we are still in the dark ages with our collective understanding.
Rather than evil forces, we are finding that many mental illnesses can have a biological basis. Other biologically-based diseases such as cancer and diabetes do not result in shunning the afflicted. In contrast, when warning signs emerge for non-mental illnesses, prompt treatment from a professional is encouraged. The disconnect occurs when one’s behavior and beliefs are the symptoms of disease.
The damage of the mental illness stigma trickles down to avoidance of common psychotherapy whereby people are ashamed to seek help for minor problems. In many cases, these are problems analogous to a broken foot in which treatment by a medical professional lessens the limping along. Like healing from a broken foot, therapy might take a few months or a year (or more), but psychological problems are often benefited by professional resources. Therapy doesn’t mean a person is “crazy”.
Do you see what I did there? I mimicked the oft-used response to the question “why don’t you speak with a therapist?”. Our xenophobia towards the mentally ill is damaging to the healthy and ill alike as our language exacerbates fear and ignorance. A new discourse is needed that breaks down walls rather than builds them.
I wonder if in 50 years we will view words like crazy, insane, mad, bonkers and psycho as derogatory terms of hate and exclusion that have thankfully lost social acceptance. Hate language with regard to gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, developmental challenges or religious affiliation is no longer acceptable, yet we casually use terms that ostracize those with mental illness. The words are entrenched in our cultural lexicon and replacements are largely lacking. Yet, language continues to evolve in parallel with our values, and will here as well. I am not crazy for thinking this.
Tragically, we have seen that banishing the mentally ill to streets and back rooms does not prevent them from finding their way into the spotlight in the most horrific ways. It’s time to bring the mentally ill back into the human family and treat their illness with the compassion and respect that we would for any other illness. After all, they are not evil, they are ill.