For a long time I use to laugh along with everyone else about mental health and "crazy people". Even though I knew it wasn't really that funny. I had a aunt who took her own life while in the throws of a terrible depression. I had another relative I grew up with in an out of institutions because of a serious mental illness. I have had friends who suffered terribly from mental illness. So why would I think it was funny when someone pretended to be crazy on the silver screen? Once a pastor of a church I attended showed a "funny" skit of a psychiatrist (played by Bob Newhart) and a patient who was suffering from a mental illness. I have to admit that not only did I laugh along with much of the congregation, but I shared the link to the video with other people. Looking back on it I don't really find it all that funny any more.
I've attended a number of different denominations (different types of protestant christian Churches) over the years. Some conservative and some very charismatic. Most attributed mental illness to either complete, or at least partial, demonic influence. Some would claim that the mentally ill person was "possessed" by demons! And again, at one time, to my shame, I also subscribed to this view.
What both the humor and the demonism have in common is that they both avoid the true nature of mental illness. They designate it as something to be laughed at, and therefore not of any real consequence, or as something that is usually the fault of the sufferer because he or she invited the demons into their lives through some wicked thought or action on their part.
I personally had to come terms with my feelings and thoughts on mental illness over the years. If my relatives and friends suffering from it didn't do it, my own diagnosis finally did. About five years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I chose then to ignore it. The doctor didn't know what he was talking about anyway (That is what I told myself) and besides, that was caused by demons and I wasn't possessed. I was a Christian after all and the last thing a Christian is, is mentally ill. Right? Wrong!
Over a year ago I was chugging along just fine. I was running races, studying martial arts, going to school full time and I had a great career. I dropped school and went into the ministry instead (after all, what could school teach me I didn't already know?). I was preaching almost every Sunday and studying what I needed in order to become a pastor. But slowly something began to change. The energy started to dissipate. I no longer could see the point of studying for the ministry. Slowly, insipidly, darkness started to color everything. I no longer liked work, I didn't like church, I didn't want to be around people, I didn't want to run or study my martial arts. I couldn't think clearly. At work I'd just stare at my monitor for almost eight hours, watching the clock for quitting time, begging the hands to move faster, doing only what was required of me and struggling to see the point of it all.
I have always struggled with periods of depression, but this was the worst I had ever experienced. And it got still worse. Much worse. At the end of last summer I read my electronic journal that I keep and realized I had been talking about depression in between bouts of high energy and activity, blaming the depression on Satan, and the good times on God, for almost six years!
By this time I was self-medicating with copious amounts of alcohol just to recover from the day. I couldn't wait to go to sleep at night and I dreaded getting up in the morning. The summer completely passed me by and I didn't remember much of any of it. I decided it was time to talk to my doctor.
My doctor put my on some medicine for my depression and insisted I see someone in the psychiatric profession who could help regulate my medication. But the medication had a very odd side-effect. I started to rapidly cycle between severe depression and euphoria. In either case I could hardly function. So I saw someone else who, after a few questions and noting my symptoms while on the antidepressant, diagnosed me with bipolar 2. She started me on a mood stabilizer and changed my antidepressant out for another. I started seeing a psychiatrist later on and he recommended I go on an anti-psychotic along with my other medications to help bring the cycling under control.
After a year of doing the medication shuffle and talking to both my doctor and my priest I am doing better. This time, instead of denial, I finally decided to embrace my illness. I decided to stop being afraid of what people have to say (thus this post) and own it. Which brings me to my final bit. A few things to note, which I hope will help you interact better with those struggling with mental illness. After all, one in five, struggle with mental illness. So the likelihood that you know someone who suffers from it is very, very high. And, unfortunately, the stigma also is still very high.
1. Mental illness is not the fault of the sufferer. It is not true, not to mention cruel, to say such things to someone with a mental illness. We probably wouldn't even say this to someone suffering from another disease even if it was their fault. So why treat mental illness differently?
2. Mental illness is just that. An illness. Blaming it on demons or a character flaw is not only ignorant, it is cruel.
3. People cannot just "get over it". You wouldn't tell someone with a broken leg or diabetes to just "get over it", would you?
4. Some mental illness can be overcome with counseling and talk therapy. Some cannot. Diseases like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, to name two, cannot. There is not talking one's self out of these types of diseases. Talking can help cope, but these are life-long diseases that, more often than not, must be medicated if the sufferer is going to have any semblance of a life. Just like other diseases.
5. We don't want the disease. Yes, it can help make someone very productive and creative at times. But the cons far outweigh the pros (If they can be called that). If you asked most people with mental illness if they wanted to get better, most if not all would say yes. Romanticizing mental illness is the media's game. But like most things in the movies, it isn't true.
6 Don't tell me it could be worse. Think about it. Telling someone who just lost his legs that it could be worse is kind of obvious but completely inappropriate. And it doesn't help.
7. Don't tell me it is just a season and everyone goes through them. You simply haven't a clue if you've never struggled with mental illness. If by "season" you mean my whole life, then yes, I will agree. Otherwise don't say it.
8. Don't tell me you have the same mental illness if you've never been diagnosed. It isn't that you aren't struggling with the same thing, per se. It is just that we live in a "me" culture that thrives on one-upping the other person, and people are quick to try and "join the club" whenever they can. So forgive me if I don't believe you out of hand. If you think you have a mental illness then GO TO A DOCTOR.
9. You don't have to tell me, "I never knew". I spent a lot of years hiding it from myself. I've gotten pretty good at it. I don't really like talking about it and I'm not ever going to be quick to bring it up (Another reason why #8 seems so out of place). Most people don't like talking about it mostly because of the stigma it has. Many of us, even though we know logically it isn't our fault, still struggle with shame and embarrassment because of it.
10. Please do not attribute every weird thing I say or do to my mental illness (or to any mental illness). How many times have we heard, "Oh she is just OCD" or, "There he goes, getting all schizo again". Such things are right up there with, "She's a typical hysterical woman" or "He acts like such a girl". Inappropriate and not true.
11. Finally, don't tell me I should get off my medication and try this diet or that herbal supplement. Unlike the latest fad, the use of medication, although far from perfect, is scientifically proven to help.
Anyway, that's it. It is all I got the energy for. If you want more information about bipolar 2, or mental illness in general, here is some extra reading:
Mental Health Month information
Bipolar 2 (with some info about Bipolar 1)
Mental health in general
Top ten things not to say to someone with a mental illness
The black dog (A short video about clinical depression)