Mental illness has been, and without a doubt will remain, the defining experience of my life. I’ve aspired to normalcy, I’ve fantasized about sanity, I’ve wanted to be someone without a mood disorder more than I’ve ever wanted anything else in my entire life. I recognize that this isn’t how it ought to be, but any other characterization would be dishonest.
This deep desire to be something other than what I am seems to me to have two primary causes:
1) The profound mental distress I’ve experienced and the way it’s interfered with my life.
2) The mainstream ignorance of the reality of mental illness.
Sure, the world at large knows that mental illness exists. But this superficial awareness hasn’t prevented a widespread fear and outright dislike of people living with mental illness. In a 2010 article in The L.A. Times, “Mental illness stigma lingers even though people understand it’s a brain disease,” Shari Roan reported on a study regarding attitudes toward mental illness and the mentally ill. The study looked at attitudes over time, and found little had changed from 1996 to 2006.
Roan wrote that, “For example, the percentage of people who said they are unwilling to work closely with someone with major depression was 46 percent in 1996 and 47 percent in 2006. The percentage of people who considered people with schizophrenia to be a danger to others was 54 percent in 1996 and 60 percent in 2006.”
Aware of this considerable stigma, the community of mental health advocates and organizations are focused on ending it by tackling it directly. The National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) has a monthly “StigmaBusters Alert” that focuses on harmful portrayals of mental illness in pop culture and the media. Medical websites, such as the Mayo Clinic, often have portions of their website devoted to mental health stigma. Celebrities like Glenn Close have come forward to be spokespeople against stigma.
And while all this is admirable, and I’m sure many of that these organizations have the best of intentions, I doubt this is really enough. Ending the stigma of mental illness is important, but that alone doesn’t facilitate a real understanding of what it means to live life with mental illness.