One of the things that I have found very interesting in the news lately and in the current media discourse, is the attention to mental illness. Of course, much of this is coming out of the gun debate, and while this particular blog is not about that, the references to the mentally ill have generally been a concern to me.
The mentally ill.
What comes to your mind immediately when you read that? Be honest. Crazy guy with a gun? A woman with wild hair in a straight-jacket screaming in a rubber room? A homeless man shuffling along mumbling to himself?
Something needs to be done about them!
Let's face it, if you don't think about people with mental illnesses this way, a lot of people do. The fact is that the majority of the time -- the great majority of the time, mental illness is not like this at all. For every portrayal of someone who is in an extremely animated psychotic state, there are many more who suffer in silence, or even worse, know there there is something wrong, but are too afraid to see a doctor, or simply don't understand what is going on. For the record, when referring to mental illness, one must understand that mental illness has the same breadth of severity as other forms of illness. That is to say, a cold is a virus, and so is the Black Plague, but they are two vastly different things. A person with schizophrenia who has learned to cope with its symptoms is mentally ill, but is still functioning and succeeding in life. In a physical comparison, a person with diabetes who deals with his or her disease effectively, does the same. A person with diabetes who ignores the symptoms will likely die from the affliction. In other words, when the media or policy makers decide that something "needs to be done" about, or as they term it "help" the mentally ill, it is very important to examine if they are making decisions based upon knowledge or ignorance. Policies and attitudes need to be educated and thoughtful, and definitely not extremist in thought. Would we support amputating someone's leg because they broke a toe? No way. Should someone with a diagnosed mental illness be denied certain rights or jobs or credit because he deals with a particular illness? The answer to that is "no" as well.
Look, I am very outspoken about having depression. The reason I am outspoken isn't to trumpet it to the world. Rather, it is to show others who have, or think they might have a mental disorder to know that they can survive and thrive in the workplace. This includes a work environment that includes significant stress and responsibility. My very existence and success in law enforcement serves as an example that while having a diagnosis is a burden, with some smarts and some attention to self-care, an illness can often be controlled and pushed back to a manageable state. Let me be clear. There is not a day that goes by that I am not reminded that I have depression, but the fact that every single day I knock it down and push on shows others that if I can do it, so can they.
So remember when you hear debates, or see portrayals about people that have mental illness, listen carefully and discern what is really being said. What you will find very often is the speaker, whether it is a journalist, a politician, a lobbyist, or an activist, really has no clue about what mental illness really is. In fact, let's take this to the next level. You never hear about "what to do" with people who have other illnesses. If we are saying that mental illness is in fact an illness, probably at its root based on some physical brain abnormality on some level, why don't we just call it an illness, like any other?
So when policy makers talk about the mentally ill, delete the "mentally" part. How do they sound now?
The conversation should never be based on what to do about, it should be based on what to do for.
And finally, on a somewhat unrelated side note, some time ago, a friend of mine who has schizophrenia and is a cyclist, was told by a bike club that he couldn't ride with them. Apparently he made them feel uncomfortable. They decided to do something about him by rejecting him. Now this friend, I might add, in addition to having schizophrenia, is also smart, resourceful, a dad, and driven to help others who suffer. So, he made his own bike team, and entered races, and consistently places and wins. He just finished a double-century. (That's 200 miles in a single ride, folks) He is the example not to count someone with a mental illness out. They have learned to fight and win battles every day, and they more often than not become experts at meeting life's challenges face to face - and conquering them.
Here is his blog - check it out!