Coming Out of the “Crazy” Closet

It’s tough to be mentally ill, especially with a psychotic disorder, especially around Halloween. It’s even tougher than it has to be because people equate “mentally ill” with “dangerous,” and this is not the case. I can’t help but spout the statistic here that most people who are mentally ill are non-violent, and most violent criminals are not mentally ill. But the media perpetuate this stereotype, as I discussed in an older post. This is especially true around this time of year. And let me be clear here: I love horror films. I’ve been enjoying watching as many as I have time to watch on TV the past few weeks. I love the old Psycho, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Friday the 13th, Hellraiser, and all their cheesy sequels that are as much fun to laugh at as the originals were creepy. And the list goes on. But I, unlike so many others, am capable of realizing that the depiction of mental illness in these films is no more real than the zombies in The Walking Dead, or the superpowers in The Avengers.

A lot of people, unfortunately, aren’t.

This stems from the fact that many people don’t believe they are exposed to real people with mental illnesses outside of the movies (I say “believe” here because chances are they do indeed know someone with a mental illness and just don’t realize it.) The few studies that have been done on the impact of film on stigma of mental illness indicate it really does have a negative impact because of this (I’ve been doing a lot of research on this lately for a presentation I’m putting together for one of my classes.) The news media also don’t help; news channels are likely to showcase sensational stories about people with mental illnesses committing crimes.

All of these leads to the fact that most people with mental illnesses don’t go around talking about it, especially not those who are able to hide their mental illnesses from the general public. This is bad because it creates more stress on the mentally ill who hide their illness, and also because people who hide it tend to internalize the negative stereotypes of people with mental illnesses and of mental health practitioners (if anyone is portrayed almost as badly as the mentally ill, it’s mental health professionals, who are also likely to be insane killers in films) and not want to seek the care they need.

I admit here, even I’ve been very closed about my psychotic depression in the past, not on this blog, but in my real life. But I’m becoming more open. Many of my friends at the university are aware I have psychotic depression, and this gave me the opportunity to educate them about mental illnesses and show them with an example (myself) that people with mental illnesses are just people, not inhuman monsters. I’m becoming more open in general, too. No, I don’t go around telling everyone who will listen intimate details about my suicide attempts or psychotic breaks. Rather, when people ask why I’m a psychology major, or why I’m so determined to eventually get my Ph.D. in clinical psychology, I explain that I have some experience in the field, on the patient end.

If they regard me as crazy after that, they at least don’t show it. But I’ve realized it’s really hard to be a mental health advocate when you aren’t being honest about your own mental health. Serving as a human example also makes the arguments of mental health advocacy more powerful, I think. I’ve also decided to find what mental health advocacy groups the university has, and if there are none, possibly start one myself with a group of people.

So, that’s it. I’m becoming more open. I don’t expect to face no adversity at all for this, but rather, I’m willing to face whatever I face.

It can’t be worse than sitting in shamed silence when a clueless friend casually mentions “crazies in straightjackets.”

Here we go.

Social Stigma and Mental Illness

No one denies the existence of a cancer patient’s illness or makes fun of him/her for it. You won’t likely see someone with a broken arm being avoided. Likewise, a guy who was born without limbs will likely be looked at differently for the rest of his life, but no one will ever deny him a job or deny him the right to own a gun because of his disability.

So what is it about brain disorders that evokes such a different reaction in people?

Well, it all dates back to before we even knew that the mind originates in the brain. Back then, the severely mentally ill were regarded as weak-willed or downright evil people who had given in to demonic possession. People were horrified, and chained, beat, and frequently castrated sufferers of mental illness. Another old theory has to do with the moon. The weak-minded were said to be susceptible to the same hold the moon has over tides, and so on full moons especially, so the proponents of this theory argued, the moon’s pull caused their behavior to be erratic. This is the origin of the word “lunatic.”

Flash-forward a few centuries. We are learning about the brain now more than ever, and thus, we are able to learn more about mental disorders. Powerful imaging techniques allow us to see areas of the brain that might play roles in different disorders; in the near-future, we may identify the genes that cause people to be at risk for mental disorders (which I’m not so sure is a good thing, but I’ll save that for a different post.) The only thing outdated about mental disorders today is people’s attitude toward them.

The media, I hate to say, does not help. In truth, only a very small percentage of the mentally ill population will ever be violent, but this tiny group is overly represented on the television and films. You’re very unlikely to see a non-violent mentally ill person on a show like CSI or Criminal Minds. Many horror films are also at fault. Even a film I very much enjoy, “Silence of the Lambs,” equates terrifying-ness with mental illness. The thing is, these shows wouldn’t be an issue if they weren’t the only view of mental illness that the “normal” population is exposed to.

I don’t understand why the mentally ill are still acceptable targets for poking fun. Major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia… these things (and others) are debilitating.

And here’s something I will admit: in some ways, I am a coward. I would like to be a more vocal advocate of reducing the stigma around mental illness. I would like to be more open about my own mental illness. Imagine having a terrible burden that you can’t reveal to other people. I would like to do these things, but the fact is, the social stigma is still very heavy and I just don’t want to deal with it ruining the life I have pieced together in-between struggles with mental illness.

Anyway, that was my rant about stigma and mental illness. Maybe it will catch someone’s eye and help him/her to better understand the social pressures against the mentally ill.