I was recently giving a couple talks on mental illness. I was searching for images to use in my slide presentation. My first search was for a kid who had cancer. The most common image was a smiling young person without any hair. The photos elicited compassion and understanding. We all know cancer sucks and those who survive beat it.
My next search was for a woman with mental illness. Most common images were a distraught, emotional woman with her head in her hands, unkempt hair flailing and often tears. The man with mental illness returned raging men and James Holmes the Colorado theatre shooter. Those images weren’t exactly ones that sparked compassion. More so fear. Fear of possibly being the distressed woman. Fear of being a victim at the hands of an unstable mass shooter.
Why is this important?
In a country with over sixty million people living with mental illness we are still perpetuating the idea that people are completely unstable, distraught and aren’t fighters of their illness. We bring it on ourselves. We all should just be able to tell ourselves to feel better, act better, look better and be normal. Some people think we can pray mental illness away. Prayer helps, but often doesn’t cure. It’s helpful in healing, but not in preventing.
But what if we started thinking of mental illness as a neurological condition? An illness that effects the brain? Would that matter?
I would argue it would make a significant difference. Think for a moment about epilepsy. It was not long ago epilepsy was considered a demonically possessed condition. Yes unfortunately you read that right. Imagine someone having a seizure in church or in a crowded restaurant. How would people react?
I was in a business meeting several years ago in a room with hundreds of people. One of my colleagues had a seizure. They immediately cleared the room and gave her space and privacy. We all knew she had epilepsy, a neurological condition. She continued working without any repercussions or penalties.
On the other hand, I suffered a severe bipolar depressive episode while working in the same industry as the person with epilepsy. I was questioned as if I was faking to get time off from work. Eventually I was fired.
If I had a “medical condition” would it have been socially acceptable to be fired?
Would there be outrage in a community if a child who had a seizure in school and while siezing he kicked a resource officer. Without intent to harm. Would we expect him to be charged with a crime?
The same thing happened to a young boy who had a psychotic episode. He was charged with felony assault and sentenced to probation. He is nine years old.
The way we categorize and label is inherently important in the world we live in. Language and words matter.
One day there will be more brain research. We will better understand mental illness. One day we will have more compassion and understanding and images will represent a more diverse group of people fighting for their lives.
My name is Amy Gamble, I have bipolar disorder, a brain disorder and it’s not my fault. I am a warrior.