Appreciating people with Mental Illness




“Your neighbor is your other self
dwelling behind a wall.
In understanding,
all walls shall fall down.”
Kahlil Gibran


What do Ludwig von Beethoven, Isaac Newton, Michelangelo, Winston Churchill, John Keats, Charles Dickens and Abraham Lincoln have in common? They suffered from mental illness. These and other personalities are listed on a poster, “People with Mental Illness Enrich our Lives.”

Do you know anyone who is mentally ill? Most people say they don’t. Unless you are a recluse, however, you probably know several such people. As May is National Mental Health Month, let’s explore this further.

Identifying the mentally ill is difficult. Many people are undiagnosed: Even they are unaware of their mental illness. Others—fearing prejudice—keep their illness a secret.

Thus, it is primarily the severely mentally ill who come to our attention: Charles Manson, John Hinckley and Andrea Yates have horrific stories. So our impression is that the mentally ill are more violent than “normal” people. The pervasive myth that violence is a common feature of mental illness promotes fear and discrimination. This discourages people from seeking the treatment they need.

According to the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), research shows there is a small subset of mentally ill people who become violent as a result of their illness. However, violence among the mentally ill is no greater than the general population. So anyone who generalizes that mental illness breeds violence is indulging a delusion.

The label “mentally ill” suggests a lack of intelligence. This too is a myth. As a mental health chaplain and counselor, I worked with many extraordinary people—including a genius with an IQ of 170—whose mental illness does not make them mental misfits.

Nor are people who suffer from mental illness “crazy.” This stereotype supposes that psychosis is the norm for the one-in-four citizens who have a mental illness or neurological disorder at some time in their lives.

To the contrary, even symptoms that appear crazy are understandable. For example, if you were continually abused, you would be crazy if you were not paranoid. Or as wisely stated by Dr. Wayne Oates, a clinician and professor, “There is always sense beneath the nonsense.”

Moreover, the mentally ill are not socially incompetent. Indeed, I enjoyed my work with the mentally ill precisely because so many are open to exploring their struggles with others. I was disappointed when encouraging similar openness in small groups in church settings: Social masks often prevented the progress I witnessed among those with mental illness.

An earlier version of the psychiatrist’s Bible, DSM-IV-TR, addresses another myth: The labels ‘mental disorder’ and ‘physical disorder’ are the product of a “reductionistic anachronism of mind/body dualism.” In plain English, both categories are misleading: ‘Physical disorders affect our mental health, and so-called ‘mental disorders’ affect our physical health.

Depression, for example, has both mental and physical symptoms. It afflicts 18.8 million U.S. adults, 9.5% of the population, in any given year. A mental health professional since 1985, I received this diagnosis in 1990.

After trying Prozac and Zoloft, I discovered Paxil was most effective for the reactionary depression I encountered during a turbulent marriage. I no longer needed medication when circumstances improved and I made exercise a priority. Like me, most people with mental illness function well—and most others can function well with treatment.

The stigmatizing of the mentally ill must cease. We need to reject prejudice, seeing people as individuals rather than accepting dubious labels, stereotypes and myths. We need to acknowledge people whose accomplishments amidst struggle are inspiring. We need to recognize, as NAMI’s poster reminds us: “People with Mental Illness Enrich our Lives.”

For more information, visit www.nami.org.

© 2003 Harry Rix. All rights reserved.

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