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Monday, May 3, 2010

Fighting Mental Illness

Journalism is America’s greatest continuing education program. It never ceases to amaze me how much I do not know. When I started my second book, Strong at the Broken Paces, I took on mental illness as a subject. I knew that one person in five, maybe four (whose statistics do you believe?) shows symptoms of a mental illness. It can be simple depression… which is only simple if it’s not you who is feeling it.

That’s it – the sum of my knowledge about a terrible problem affecting millions of Americans.

There is something else I know. I and my friends and neighbors, school chums and Sunday school pals grew up making fun of the mentally ill. And black people and the disabled. They were great targets because we thought they were weak and vulnerable. We didn’t know anybody in those categories, but not having a clue didn’t stop us.

So, here I was, an alleged adult, now preparing to profile a man living with bipolar disorder for a serious book, and all I could think was, get me out of here. I had already publicly admitted that I felt funny meeting the man I would profile – not exactly a healthy approach to portraying someone accurately. I used the word “crazy” in front of him. Not good. That began a conversation he and I had about the power of language. How about the power of culture? Movies and music have long portrayed the mentally ill as violent, not to mention dangerous, terrifying, unkempt, smelly and, of course, sexually deviant. Remember ‘Psycho‘? I only recently came out from under the bed.

The point is that we are products of our popular culture, and I am no different. Only, I should know better. The mentally ill are well aware of how they are seen by an indifferent public. Larry, my bipolar friend, is gentle and completely rational. Larry also is supremely patient with people who put their foot in their mouth. He has taught me a lot. People who must grapple with a mental illness should not have to take us on, too.

We have a long history to overcome.

Our kids should study this subject in school. Students discuss civil rights. I argue that how we discriminate against the disabled is a genuine civil rights issue. The mentally ill need the same protection. Want some evidence? Check out this press release issued not long ago. “The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division today announced that it has filed a motion for immediate relief to protect individuals confined in seven state-run psychiatric hospitals in Georgia from the imminent and serious threat of harm to their lives, health and safety.” Need I say more?

Do we as a society discriminate against the mentally ill? Americans are afraid of the mentally ill in large part because of how they are portrayed in story and song. What are your thoughts? Add your comments to this Discussion in the Chronic Disease & Disability Exchange.

Posted by: Richard M. Cohen at 2:10 pm