Today I had the opportunity to attend a lunch n’ learn on bipolar disorder. The gentleman presenting was a clinical psychologist who I have known from being on a working group together. He is a very nice man. However, today I witnessed one of the things that contribute to the stigma of mental illness in an astounding way.
His talk started out very informative about bipolar disorder signs and symptoms. He explained really well about mania, depression and everything in between. But then the whole talk took a downward turn. He started sharing six stories about people he had involuntarily committed. If the story had been told from a factual standpoint on how people with bipolar disorder can put themselves at risk, I would have been fine with it. Except the stories told were laughed at and even the audience laughed as well. At one point a YouTube Video was shown of a man who said he was experiencing a manic episode. It was over the top.
I guess you had to be there to really understand my perspective. I did not want to be rude and get up and leave, so I sat through a very painful hour of stigmatizing people with mental illness as crazy, looney and psycho with no hope for recovery. At one point I considered raising my hand and saying, “I am one of those bipolar type I patients who have recovered. What can you say about me?” I decided against that strategy.
What I did do is tell the organizer who joked about having a manic episode based on all the criteria he just learned that the talk needed to be more balanced. Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who run naked in neighborhoods. Yes there are people with bipolar disorder who are homeless. But there is also another side. These people are someone’s wife, husband, friend, daughter, son, brother, sister etc. .
Rather than embarrass the speaker I decided to have a private conversation with him at the end. I said to him, “I have bipolar disorder type I. Did you know that?” “No I didn’t know that,” he said rather surprised. And then I said, “I have my own sensational stories. But I am also an Olympian, have a master’s degree and have worked in Corporate America for many years. And by the way, people do recover.”
I think he was shocked that I said that to him. Of course I was very diplomatic, but it really struck a cord with me. I will have the opportunity to speak with this audience in March. I plan to spend a great deal of time talking about stigma. I hope what I say will help repair some of the damage that was done today.