Mental illness is surrounded by a plethora of half-truths and untruths. If you tell someone that you’ve been diagnosed with, for example, bipolar disorder, they are likely to roll their eyes and say, “I don’t believe it – you don’t look mentally ill…?”
So what does a mentally ill person look like? King Kong with a hangover? A rabid dog from India? The Mummy? The folks from Night of the Living Dead or some filthy transient who lives under the bridge?
No. They look like your Aunt Martha, like Queen Elizabeth of England, like my mother, like me. To look at me, you’d never guess I’m bipolar and have AADD. There’s no sign around my neck, my skin isn’t green, or puce (whatever that is), and I’m hardly violent at all. But if you worked with me, for example, you’d soon notice that I’m “different,” a little “odd,” “outrageous,” or “bizarre,”
For one thing, I find it difficult to interact with other people and on a bad day, might show hostility toward them or believe they “have it in for me.” I’m extremely negative, so people don’t enjoy being around me. I can’t follow instructions or directions if there are more than two – I have to write them down. Much of what people say seems trivial, ridiculous or challenging, to me. I can’t keep focus: if I’m working and the phone rings, it breaks my concentration and it’s tough getting it back – it may be half an hour before I do. Everything distracts me: footsteps out in the hall, a light turned off, a distant radio playing. I will appear to be excessively moody, giddy before lunch and all but catatonic after. You may think, or even say, “She must be crazy.”
I’m certainly not alone. My logic professor in college used to say, “We’re all crazy; it’s just a matter of frequency and degree.” The next time you’re in a crowd, at a party or the grocery story, take a look around: of every five people you see, one has a mental illness or has suffered an incidence of mental illness in the last year, according to the National Alliance of Research on Schizophrenia and Depression (NARSAD). These people are your friends, your family, members of your church; they go to school where you do and sit in the next cubicle at work. One reason you may not know the truth about them is that the stigma of mental illness remains strong even after decades of emerging truth, because so many people accept the mental Illness myths.
“Misconceptions about mental illness contribute to the stigma, which leads many people to be ashamed and prevents them from seeking help,” said Constance Lieber, NARSAD President. “Dispelling these myths is a powerful step toward eradicating the stigma and allaying the fears surrounding brain disorders.”
The most common myths are these:
– “Mental illnesses aren’t real diseases like diabetes or leukemia. Those people aren’t sick, they’re crazy,” people say. They’re wrong. Brain disorders are real diseases, caused by various genetic and biological factors, and they exact an awful price. Direct mental health services, including treatment and rehabilitation, approaches $69 billion a year. Lost worker-hours have been estimated at $78 billion.
– “Mental illness is not common.” Again, untrue. According to NARSAD, “Four of the 10 leading causes of disability worldwide are mental disorders…among developed nations, including the United States, major depression is the leading cause of disability. Also near the top of these rankings are manic-depressive illness, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.”
-“People with mental illness are retarded, or “feeble-minded – they’ll never amount to anything.” Although mentally ill people may also be retarded, we’re talking about two different things here. And plenty of successful people were or are afflicted with mental illness, including:
Queen Elizabeth Depression
Richard Nixon Depression
John Lennon Depression
Abraham Lincoln Depression
Betty Ford Depression
Jimmy Piersall Bipolar
Charles Schultz Anxiety
Vincent Van Gogh Bipolar
Winston Churchill Bipolar
Virginia Woolf Bipolar
Mary Lincoln Schizophrenia
Patty Duke Bipolar
– “‘Schizophrenia’ means “split personality. These people are dangerous and violent.” Both untrue. Research has proven that people with schizophrenia are not much more violent and/or dangerous than the unafflicted; they are more likely to be frightened half to death, confused, bewildered and despairing.
– Mental illness is the result of bad parenting, running with the wrong crowd, or watching too much TV. Not so. Brain disorders have physical causes.
– Depression is caused by a weakness in the personality, an evil soul or a bad character. People could “snap out of it,” if they only wanted to. It’s just a matter of using the will power. Mentally ill people can no more cure themselves than they can change the color of their eyes or grow a new leg, and it is cruel to tell them that. This is one myth that definitely needs to be stamped out.
– It’s normal for older people to be depressed – after all, they’re going to die soon. I can’t imagine what sort of person would actually say this to an older depressed person, but I am sure it has happened.
– “All those children being medicated aren’t really mentally ill, they’re just being kids.” Wrong. According to the Surgeon General’s Children’s Mental Health Report, “One out of 10 children will suffer debilitating mental illness each year.” Other sources claim one in five.
– “Shock Treatment” (electroconvulsive therapy or ECT) is vicious, dangerous and demoralizing. Incorrect. ECT works, and it works well. Those undergoing ECT treatment are anesthetized and feel nothing. ECT is most often used when other modalities have failed, and has been a life-saver for many depressed people.
Prior to the Surgeon General’s report, research into the stigma of mental illness was conducted by Lichtenstein Creative Media, working for the city of New York to develop its anti-stigma campaign. They hired market researchers to find out what stigma really is, its incidence, and possible remedies. These researchers:
…”began with quantitative studies, calling more than 400 New Yorkers at home to assess their attitudes about people with mental illness, and then followed up with a series of focus groups. The findings were startling. In the phone interviews, more than half of all New Yorkers said they knew someone with mental illness. About those whom they knew, they felt compassionate, supportive and empathetic, and believed that more tax dollars should be spent to help them.”
Another group, including lawyers, teachers and insurance executives, reported that they felt the need to “guard themselves” against mentally ill people, that they were “unkempt, social outcasts and menaces to society.” They referred to mentally ill people as “unpredictable,” and expressed fear that they might “go berserk” and attack or even kill someone:
“Asked where they got their perceptions of “the mentally ill,” all agreed: from TV and movies, off the front page of tabloid newspapers and by seeing people on the street. What became clear was that the images that drive public perception of mental illness are just the tip of the iceberg, and that the vast majority of people with mental illness – recovered people who take their medication, go to treatment, go to work every day and raise families – just aren’t visible. When asked if they want to hire someone with mental illness or rent an apartment to them, many people immediately think of a guy sleeping on the street or a man who pushed a girl onto the train tracks – not about the people that they know in their own lives to be responsible and trustworthy.”
People who form their opinions from what they see on TV and in movies are, or should be suspect. I certainly would not choose a lawyer or a teacher if I knew they considered mentally ill people to be “a menace to society.” Social outcasts, yes, we are, in a way. I myself have seen people behaving oddly or inappropriately and thought “they must be crazy” – there can be no doubt that mentally ill people contribute to the stigma. It may not be possible for us to change everybody’s impressions of the mentally ill, but we can at least stop judging. That’s a real step forward.