Apologies in advance to all of the high school kids I’m about to annoy, but I am so excited for school to start again! No, it’s not because I’ve got children of my own and I’m dying to get them out of my hair (that last phrase should be an indication of my suitability as a parent). I’ve had a mini-epiphany recently that led to an idea that led to a project, however, it requires the presence of juniors and seniors during their Social Studies class.Continue Reading
My Safeway grocery shopping junket the other day was the same as any other until it was my turn to pay for my produce. Before starting to ring up my order, the cashier stopped, pulled a couple of tablets out of her apron pocket, and swallowed them with a swig of water. “Almost forgot to take my antidepressants!” she said, scanning the bar code on a jug of milk. After that, the regular small talk ensued.
A number of different thoughts crossed my mind. Did she disclose that information in order to elicit a response from me, empathetic or otherwise? Or is she so accepting of herself and her illness that she didn’t even think twice about vocalizing her condition? Did my own thoughts about her change after she told me that she had depression? And finally, if everybody was just out with it, would there be fewer stigmas around mental illness?
When a gay person comes out of the closet, so to speak, they often say that they decided to publicly acknowledge their sexuality because they could no longer bear to hide any part or aspect of their being. Their desire for the feeling of freedom and authenticity becomes greater than their fear of reprisal and judgment. Of course, if the latter didn’t exist, there wouldn’t be closets in the first place. Freedom and honesty and acceptance could abound for all. I’m not necessarily talking about disclosure between a Safeway cashier and a casual shopper, but how many people out there are hiding a mental illness from their friends, family, coworkers or employers?
It seems that we always have a great deal of compassion for people with a physical illness, especially if their story is one of triumph. We love a story of someone beating cancer and then running a marathon (or winning a Tour de France). How about for the people that have a mental illness and are still standing and thriving? Are we there with a high five (or maybe just general acceptance) for them, too?
Closets are places where we hide things so that our lives look tidy. They are for vacuum cleaners and footballs and jackets and pogo sticks. I don’t like to think that some of the people around us — some that we know and love, and some that are strangers – feel like they have to be in a closet, shoved in with the odds and ends of the rest of the household. I prefer to envision the triumph of the alcove, with a reading bench and a bay window, where people can sit in quiet repose or invite us in to hear their story. And the beautiful thing about an alcove is that there is no door in between us.
Adjectives and classifiers. We use them constantly and sometimes unconsciously throughout our day to make sense of all the different stimuli and organisms that cross our paths and make up our world. Often, the descriptors that we attach to an object or event are benign, without subtext or additional meaning. For example, “He is bald.” You can say that without intending to imply anything else beyond that observation. His hair fell out and then did not grow back. And…? That’s it, right?
Then there are stereotypes. These are also used with frequency, sometimes frustratingly so (I’m thinking of my father, who used to start sentences with “(S)he’s a typical…” and then go from there). That’s not to say that I don’t use them myself. I do, and regularly. Having been so far unsuccessful in banishing them from my lexicon, I try to check in with myself on the judgment that I am attaching to the stereotype, and at least be cognizant and questioning with regards to its use. Perhaps, though, I should stop telling people that I am of hardy Eastern European peasant stock for starters. I will at least refrain from purchasing The Onion’s t-shirt that says “Stereotypes are a Real Time-Saver” (I got their “Che Wearing Che” t-shirt, instead).
At any rate, stereotypes are there, in front of us all the time. In the western hemisphere of the 21st century, there are some categories for which we will likely get called out on the carpet if we use them: racial, ethnic, religious, sexual, and gender, to name a few. There have been many decades of challenges and discussion around these, dare I say it, ‘popular’ stereotypes.
What about mental illness stereotypes? They may be less verbal than the other categories, but they certainly exist. People often talk about the stigma attached to having a mental illness, but what is the judgment that is going on behind the stigma? How does that judgment present itself? What are the barriers that are springing up between us and a person with a mental illness (because that what is often happening) when we attach a quick summary to their condition?
I’ll list the ones that come to my mind, and I hope that others will add to the list through blog comments. I’m sincere in saying that I am interested in hearing what others feel the mental illness stereotypes are, in the name of both research for my book about schizophrenia, and to drive further discussion in future blog posts.
Let’s dive in. Stereotypes about people with mental illness include:
– they are unpredictable – they may suddenly yell, or throw a punch, start crying, or start dancing, badly
– they are violent
– they are unreliable (and/or too unreliable to have a job)
– they have poor judgment
– they have limitations
– they are weak
– they are unable to be stewards of their own lives
Phew. That’s some pretty heavy stuff, and I am sure there is more. There may also be some positive stereotypes that will emerge. Now what do we do with it? Is acknowledgment of their existence enough? Do we need to set out to prove the stereotypes wrong? Why do these particular stereotypes exist? As you may have guessed, I have some thoughts and opinions on it all, and some facts and data that I may be able to incorporate as well. That will be in a future blog post. Today, I just want to get the wheels turning.
I am going to end this post with a statement that will probably be at the end of almost every other post that I write about mental illness: as I explore issues around mental illness, I aim to do so with curiosity, integrity and balance. I have my beliefs and leanings, you might say, and as this journey unfolds for me, I am sure that my convictions will grow stronger, one way or another. In recognition of the many faces, stories, and circumstances that make up the community of people with mental illness, I understand that there is deep diversity within this community and will always endeavor to write with this in mind.