God love advocates for people with mental illness, but sometimes their attempts to reduce stigma ignore the hard realities of life. For example, a recent article used the revelations about Jesse Jackson Jr’s bipolar disorder to launch into a generic lecture on mental health stigma that had virtually nothing to do with Mr. Jackson’s specific experience.
So of course, I’ll use their article to launch into a rant about those who so blindly want to protect people with a mental illness that they instead give the impression we are fragile beings who need protecting from a cold, cruel society that doesn’t always understand our plight. With that said, let’s take a look at two points – one good and one bad – made in the article which you can read here.
Mental Illness vs. Physical Illness
The well-meaning article states, “a classic example of mental health stigma—the idea that mental illnesses are somehow fundamentally different from physical ailments and that they permanently affect a person’s judgment and competence in a negative way …”
Today, it’s in vogue to blame chemical imbalances or perhaps structural anomalies in the brain as the cause of mental illness. This is a way of trying to equate a mental illness with conditions such as cancer. I have no doubt it is true in some cases. However, the author is wrong in suggesting that mental illness is not fundamentally different. It absolutely is different regardless of the underlying cause.
Ask a person who has struggled for 20 or 30 years with severe depression, bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia if they would gladly trade a limb – a hand, arm, foot – for a lifetime of good mental health. I would.
Mental illness is fundamentally different – perhaps not in having an underlying cause – but in how it impacts our lives. Suggesting otherwise ignores reality.
The Person is the Illness
The article states, “These myths of mental illness result in a wholesale blaming of the diagnosis for virtually everything the patient thinks and does. Relationship problems? It is the depression talking. Difficulty with medication? If it were not for the mental illness, he would willingly take it. The list can go on and on, and it sometimes causes people with mental health conditions to feel like they are defined by their diagnosis alone.”
The author is right about this perception. I’ve experienced this reaction even from persons who are wholeheartedly supportive. For example, I remember a brief and relatively meaningless period several years ago when things just weren’t clicking in life. It was just a rough couple weeks like anyone – healthy or not – might experience from time to time; however, I remembered being asked “how are you doing?” and from the tone it seemed clear the person wasn’t asking generically but had my history of depression and anxiety in mind as they assumed it was the cause.
Their intentions were good, but it made me feel that much worse. Today, I know that sometimes I just need a thicker skin.
My point is this – life with a mental illness or prolonged periods of mental illness are fundamentally different from a typical physical ailment. This is true whether it is how society reacts to us or otherwise in how it impacts our thinking, emotions and daily functioning.
So here is a provocative question for those with experience with serious illness: would you trade it for a serious physical condition such as the loss of a limb, cancer, partial paralysis or something else?