Why I talk about mental illness

Close-up of a woman's smiling face, shot with way too much flash

This is the face of mental illness.

I haven’t been shy about discussing my mental health on this blog. There’s a lot of privilege behind that — I know that I’m probably not going to suffer ill effects to my life or livelihood if people know about it. That isn’t the case for everyone with mental illnesses, and I would never insist that anyone come forward to talk about theirs if they aren’t comfortable doing so. That’s one reason I talk about it: Because I can, and it needs to be talked about.

I also talk about it because of (terrifyingly) more and more frequent tragedies — like the mass shooting in Las Vegas — after which people propagate stereotypes, stigmas, and harmful messages about people with mental illnesses. They help nothing and hurt many, and that needs to be talked about, too. And I can.

I have bipolar II. It’s a subtype of bipolar disorder, characterized by the same depressive lows and what’s known as hypomania — less-extreme, less self-destructive highs. I’m very, very lucky — I have great insurance and a great doctor, and my illness is well controlled with medication that I can afford. (I also have ADD, also controlled with medication I can afford.)

Others aren’t so lucky, lacking insurance, lacking access to care, having illnesses that are harder to manage, suffering from unbearable side effects to medication, being unable to afford medication at all. When we talk about mental health issues, they are the ones in need of help. They need affordable insurance and financial support that will help them access treatment. They need healthcare providers in underserved areas — which, due to a worsening provider shortage, is most areas right now. They need public awareness so that they and others can recognize the symptoms of mental illnesses and not just dismiss them as personality faults or personal failings. And they need a society without the stigma surrounding mental illness that makes others fear them and them fear themselves.

What we don’t need is to come forward for help and be put on some Federal Crazy Registry so we can be blocked from whatever they’re afraid of us having at the moment — and that’s not even talking about guns, the issue du jour. ADA regulations notwithstanding, people who are open about mental illness suffer discrimination in hiring and the workplace, in housing, education, and even public office — and this is even for people whose illness has long since been controlled. The suggestion that registries and restrictions would benefit people with mental illness only indicates that your focus goes only as far as your own fear.

I always hesitate to say that this isn’t the time to talk about mental illness because it’s become such a cliche — not the time to talk about gun control, not the time to talk about climate change. But this really isn’t the time to talk about mental illness. It’s an actively bad time to talk about mental illness. Talking about mental illness in this context is actively harmful to the people most affected by it.

Talking about aberrant violence and mental illness in the same breath perpetuates those stigmas about people with mental illnesses. It discourages people from coming forward and getting help. It rarely includes input from mental health professionals or people who have mental illnesses. (Although honestly, who would want to be the person who has to go on CNN to argue that no, not all people like me are mass murders?) And realistically, it’s usually just used as a distraction from other, more pertinent issues and then discarded when it’s no longer needed.

When is a good time to talk about mental health and mental health care? When we’re talking about regular healthcare. When we’re talking about healthcare reform. When we’re talking about cuts to public health funding. When we’re talking about helping homeless veterans (another group that’s frequently dragged out to make political points and then ignored once the point is made). The people who are talking so passionately about mental health care now tend to be curiously reticent about the issue when they’re talking about repealing the ACA, which would make mental health care inaccessible for many people in dire need. But then, not now, is the time to talk about mental health.

The time to talk about mental health is when people aren’t scared and confused, and when they can look at people with mental illnesses as people deserving and in need of support — not as a ticking time bomb and a threat to public safety. Misguided discussions in times like this need corrections and reality checks to minimize the damage they cause. In times not like this, the issue needs to be raised to keep people from forgetting about it once their fear and confusion have passed. And all the time, people who are capable of and comfortable with doing so need to counter the stigmas about mental illness through open, unashamed visibility.

And that’s why I talk about mental illness.


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1 comment for “Why I talk about mental illness

  1. Chemistry
    October 15, 2017 at 7:08 am

    I have moderate depression. I shouldn’t be allowed to own a gun. I would use it, eventually, on myself. OTOH, I choose NOT to own a gun, because I would eventually use it on myself. Do I need a gun to otherwise hunt or defend myself? Well, no.

    I feel like people with a diagnosis that gives a high degree of chance they’d use a weapon on themselves, or others, shouldn’t be able to get a gun license. But, would that stop people whose subjective reality is dangerously skewed, but otherwise seem trustworthy, that aren’t seeing a shrink?

    It’s a good idea to want to stop dangerous people from getting guns, but I don’t think any procedure we could come up with would, practically speaking, stop the people who are going to want to shoot up a theater or whatever. Let’s say you required people to take an on-the-spot psych exam. Sociopaths and people who are a bit odd, but haven’t progressed to the point of being dangerous, would still sail through.

    What about the way most mass shooters are white men? How does our society treat white men such that they think it’s OK to go murder a bunch of people? I feel like, even if we banned guns generally, people who want to murder a bunch of people would still find ways to be awful. Banning guns is fine, but it seems to me like we would still need to fix the underlying blind rage at not getting whatever you think you’re owed by life.

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