I’ve watched the phenomenon of the Ice Bucket Challenge with some interest. At first I didn’t understand it. I wasn’t clear as to how dumping buckets of ice water over people’s heads was raising money for ALS. A friendly discussion enlightened me as to how the awareness had raised millions of dollars, as well as giving people a brief glimpse into how an ALS patient feels. Both goals of the Ice Bucket Challenge intrigued me, being a sufferer of another sometimes deadly and underfunded disease, bipolar disorder. I also have friends who suffer from clinical depression. Was there a way to mimic the effects of that disease, or at least depression? Mental illness research is underfunded in large part because people don’t understand it, and people always fear what they don’t understand. If there could be a way to make a neurotypical person understand what it’s like to be depressed, or autistic, or schizophrenic, people might be more sympathetic.
Even if there are ways to simulate the effects of various mental disorders, there still remains the stubborn refusal of a large portion of society to accept that mental illnesses are diseases just like illnesses that cause physical symptoms. Mental illnesses also have their origins in physical processes: their symptoms just manifest in the mind instead of the body. And some people do have physical effects because of their mental illness: body aches and pains, fatigue, and clumsiness are just a few. Yet there are still those who insist that taking medication is a weakling’s solution to a problem that can be fixed with diet and behavior modification. This attitude typically manifests as, “If you only did more of activity X, you wouldn’t be depressed.” Part of this problem is perpetuated by the fallacious assumption that most people get depressed. No, most people get the blues. Having the blues is an entirely different animal than having clinical depression or other mental illnesses. Its effects may be somewhat mitigated by diet and lifestyle changes, but you cannot cure mental illness with those things. Nor is it appropriate to compare the effects of the blues and those of depression. One is a temporary state of lowering of mood that can generally be affected by making some basic changes in one’s life, while the other is a debilitating state of existence that can generally only be helped with therapy and/or medication, and sometimes even then it is nigh on impossible to get to a place of stability because psych meds work differently on everyone.
It’s bad enough to deal with a public perception of being weak or just lazy, but it’s quite another to deal with unfounded fears fed by mass media. Tell someone you’re bipolar, and they’re likely to take a step or two back from you, because there’s a societal presumption that bipolar people are inherently unstable and therefore dangerous. This myth is propogated by media that focuses on the most isolated, sensational stories they can find about mental illness. Fear of other people’s judgment causes a great number of bipolar people (and those with other mental illnesses) to not say anything to anyone about their illness. This causes isolation, which is not healthy for people with mental illness, moreso than with neurotypical people. We need support networks if we’re going to stay healthy and balanced, and we don’t get that if we have to hide.
The only way to combat the stigma of mental illness is to talk about it, which makes most people very uncomfortable. People don’t like the notion that something could go wrong in their brains that would cause them to behave in abnormal ways. However irrational, there is still a public perception that mental illness can “catch”. Which in one way can be true: it can be maddening to deal with the mentally ill. They display behaviors that neurotypical people classify as things that can be changed with behavior modification and lifestyle changes. And for most people, that’s true. An attitude adjustment, a shift in diet, some exercise, and maybe some counseling will set most people back on the path of happiness. Unfortunately that’s just not true with the mentally ill, some of whom do display behaviors that can frighten others. People’s fears and assumptions combine in a way that essentially shuns the mentally ill from greater society.
This societal attitude manifests partially as a lack of funding for mental illness research. Despite being one of the most costly and prevalent causes of missed work and disability, mental illness gets very little attention unless a pharmaceutical company is marketing another antidepressant or antipsychotic. True research into the causes of mental illness falls far below that of other chronic illnesses. Until this situation is rectified, mental illness will continue to be one of America’s biggest and least talked about problems.
Prevailing social attitudes are slowly shifting as more people are diagnosed with mental illness and public education increases, but there still remains the stubborn perception of many that the mentally ill are just making excuses for wanting to be lazy, that we could be doing more to “cure” what they don’t see as a legitimate disease, just a fault in the human spirit. We are asked stupid, rude questions like, “Have you tried not being depressed?” As if we want to be this way. Even loved ones of the mentally ill will make erroneous assumptions about someone’s behavior and attribute ALL of a person’s actions to their mental illness, constantly asking them if they’re on their meds.
Public perception of mental illness is unlikely to change until the mass media stops latching onto every isolated incidence of violence that MAY be due to mental illness (and not all are: some people are just mean). There need to be more stories sympathetic to the plight of the mentally ill, that shed light on the various conditions instead of pushing them back into the shadows. More research needs to be done on the brain to determine the causes of mental illnesses so that they can be treated more effectively.
I do my part by writing these blog entries (that very few people probably read) and not letting my shame and embarrassment about being mentally ill impede my ability to write and talk about how my illness affects me. I have a zero tolerance policy with people that treat me with kid gloves or avoid me because I’m bipolar. Fortunately, I have friends with mental illness, and my friends who don’t are very supportive, educated, and understanding. Not all people are so lucky, though. It’s those people who need our help the most.
If you know someone with mental illness, in particular one of the more misunderstood ones like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, don’t be afraid of them. If they’re doing things that frighten or upset you, tell them: they may have no idea that they’re misbehaving. Talk to them about their disease and ask them how it affects them. It will help ease your own fears and make the other person feel understood and not so alone. If they’re unable to talk to you about their disease, do your own research. Be a good advocate for their health, and if they’re a danger to themselves or someone else, don’t be afraid to call the police if they’re unresponsive to communication. Most of them will thank you for your concern afterwards. The ones who don’t are in some ways the people that deserve our sympathy and understanding the most, for they are living in hell. That is probably the most important thing for neurotypicals to understand about the mentally ill: we do live in hell and would probably cut off limbs to be right in the head again. We don’t want to be this way, and most of us are doing all we can to mitigate the effects of our illness.
I leave you with this handy graphic that will hopefully illustrate how silly it is the way we treat people with mental illness.