In my family, if someone is mentally ill it is not classified as an illness at all. The sufferer is told to “suck it up” or just “decide to feel happy and you will.” Now while it is true that both of these suggestions offered in familial friendship can and often do help the sufferer, there are aspects of the case that strongly place such attitudes into question at other times. Abraham Lincoln, himself a sufferer of a major depressive disorder once said, “a man can be just as happy as he determines he will be.”
This same family simply does not consider mental illness to be an illness at all. It is a deep flaw of moral character, a weakness, shameful cowardice, and a widespread inability to control oneself indicating moral depravity. That may be true. But not everyone would blithely assert such a claim.
Measured against that standard there are over 57 million people who will experience a mental health episode or illness each year. Those figures are supplied to us from the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI. The medical community at large considers mental illness to be very real and the fields of psychiatry and mental therapy allied to the science of psychology provide the nation with a great deal of medical support for the sufferer from such conditions which may or may not be an illness.
There is a large body of peer reviewed scientific research which suggests that mental agitations of various kinds that differ from a “normal” or healthy individual have both a mental and a physical basis. In fact, depression, the most common affliction with mental illness, likely has a strong connection to changing chemical balances within the human brain itself as do bi-polar disorders. So mental illness has a physical basis just like other diseases afforded public sympathy and understanding. They are simply more difficult to SEE with our eyes and FEEL with our fingers or hands. Therefore, far too many of us dismiss them as non-existent or indicative of other things much more disreputable.
To those who suffer the many conditions associated with what in public is called “Mental Illness” it does feel and is experienced as if it is was some kind of real illness by the sufferer. We can play semantic games all day long as to what defines an illness. It is a change in a person’s feelings and perceptions that is not asked for by the person suffering the mental illness. It comes along like other physical illnesses which by tradition are the only things that show a manifestation of illness. Traditional views impart illness to physical injuries to the body.
Then there is the tendency to stigmatize mental illness in the sense that those who suffer mild depression or anxiety are inherently placed in precisely the same category as those who are paranoid schizophrenics who go out and murder people not knowing their own minds at all. Most paranoid schizophrenics don’t go out and murder people. Neither does those with bi-polar disorders in most cases. The ability to function and have normal days is a challenge but the sufferer can pull it off with proper treatment and regular care.
Those mentally ill that is sociopaths or psychopaths, and who pose a danger to larger society, are barely more than one percent of us who suffer mental illness each year. Total insanity does not separate that person from the rest of us in terms of illness. They too suffer an illness though it may be more extreme than others.
Physical illness can and does vary in severity. So does mental illness. Why is one sort of illness the object of huge sympathy from our society and the other stigmatized with fear, ignorance, and disapproval of the sufferer?
I have a growing and well- deserved reputation for being the “crazy” one in the family, incapable of holding on to the most elementary relationships and scaring wide swaths of family members with my behaviors. The solution has been to separate myself from my family entirely– people who hold such rigid and traditional views of psychiatric illness, views that are so heavily prejudicial to the sufferer. It is the setting of a boundary that is placed there for my benefit. But the boundary also has the advantage of preventing contact with someone who will disturb and irritate the rest of the family.
My wife of 28 years, my eldest daughter and her husband and my granddaughter, my two younger teen age children and all of my work associates and friends, see no such manifestations of my illness and happily are able to work with me productively and with no fear, ignorance, or apprehension at what I might do to myself or others. It is NOT an issue with them. That is simply because other than this little blip on imaginary conversations with two family members I have never been feeling so good and never have been in such control of my faculties for over eight years since the first appearance of the illness.
Many people who suffer mental illness in their lives are either worried about how family and friends will take news of their malady; whether or not they will find friends and close relatives to be sympathetic or to shy away from them in horror or disapproval of their weakness and flawed character to ever contract such an imaginary and non-existent condition.
My comments here have been intended to attack the notion that mental illness is not an illness every bit as legitimate as physical illness is with all the attendant sympathy from the public it most properly brings forth.
The American public needs a good deal of education upon what mental illness is and is not. Those who suffer it in many forms and differing severities need to be seen as just the opposite: as strong of character, brave, and ready to fight and live normal lives despite these illnesses.
I once told a support group of mine that I thought it would be so much more helpful if we could display bloody bandages about the head, an arm in a sling, walking with a limp. Saying we had some physical manifestation of our mental illness if only to evoke that large body of sympathy sufferers of physical illness are heir to.
The nation as a whole must educate themselves and understand mental illness much better and with increasing sophistication equal to that of physical illness if those of us, some 57 million strong, are to be properly understood and related to in a manner that is commensurate with the reality of our situations and not some concocted culturally outmoded view of who we are and why we are.
Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
For Struggles for Justice