I live in a culture where the media, reporting on a mass shooting, is often quick to speculate that the shooter is mentally ill before any real evidence is in. I live in a culture that sells and wears Halloween costumes of “mental patients” (usually a straitjacket of some kind). I live in a culture where it is perfectly acceptable to make jokes about the mentally ill. I live in a culture where on a daily basis I see people on social media use the words, psycho, wacko, lunatic, crazy, insane, and say things like “going postal” or “I’m so bipolar” because they went from happy to sad in the same day. I live in a culture that over a decade ago closed most state hospitals and began to house the mentally ill in prisons.
If I were talking about any other group of people, there would be outrage, there would be marches, there would be people calling each other out as racist, homophobic, islamophobic. There are words for what I just described about the treatment of the mentally ill too. The words are mentalism and psychophobia (both of these words have other definitions). When was the last time you heard someone call another’s actions out on social media as being an act of mentalism when they said, “The men in white jackets will be here to get me at any time.” I’m going to guess you have never heard it, because making fun of the mentally ill is so widely accepted that no one points it out like they do if they say something against another minority.
It is in this environment that I was given the diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia. I had all the stereotypes, the myths, and misinformation that our culture had provided me with and encouraged for most of my life. But now all that information was something that had to do with me personally. I knew from my own experience that most of what society believed about schizophrenia wasn’t true. I wasn’t strong enough to stand up and make a difference though. Out of shame and fear of being isolated and hurt, I kept my diagnosis as my husband’s and my secret for nearly twenty years.
When was the last time you heard someone with cancer, diabetes or heart disease say that they felt shame about their illness? A mental illness is not a character flaw. It is not a demon possession. It is not a failure on the part of our parents or anyone else. It is a brain disease.
It took me a long time to get here, but I’m standing up now, and I’m speaking out. Paranoid schizophrenia is not a laughing matter, neither is any other mental illness, and people shouldn’t have to hide their illness in fear and in shame. Mental illness can be as deadly as any other disease. It’s not funny. It’s not a joke.
Do me a favor and just listen and watch for the jokes, the stereotypes, and the misinformation. The first step in changing the current environment around mental illness is becoming sensitive to what is being said, and what is happening. Please start by keeping your eyes and ears open and if you want to point out that someone made a remark that reeked of mentalism, or is displaying psychophobia, then I’m behind you every step of the way. Welcome aboard!
Woman hiding face photo available from Shutterstock