Sunday, June 3, 2012

Violence and Mental Health Stigma

The Headlines

Gunman: a life full of rage, a shocking final act

This was the headline in the Seattle Times on Wednesday May 30, Ian Lee Stawicki shot and killed 5 people in 2 locations in Seattle and then turned the gun on himself. As the news reports became one never ending roll of updates, and spread around the world, it was soon discovered that Mr. Stawicki had been showing signs of mental illness and his father suspected he had untreated manic depression (aka bipolar disorder). Once again violence and death became linked with bipolar disorder even though these events are relatively rare. 

The Other Face of Bipolar Disorder and Mental Illness
Most people who have bipolar disorder are like me and so many people I know: they  are employed, have successful careers and families. We are the face of bipolar disorder and mental illness but this is not the face we see in the public sphere. National organizations like the the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) - which has more than 1100 local chapters in all 52 states,  and the newly founded Seattle-based Professionals Affected by Mental Illness (PAMI) include members that represent a wide variety of jobs and careers and levels of education.

For some reason, we who have a mental illness have not joined the 'anonymous' movement (perhaps Mental Illness Anonymous - MIA). Perhaps if we went to meetings where we would stand up and own our issues we would get praised and supported for staying symptom free. And when we went out in public we could talk about getting our 1 year medal and be supported for our efforts.

The Stigma of Mental Illness
Instead we hide in closets of society's making with our own support. So that when people talk about the mentally ill they think of people who are homeless shouting at the moon or just another mass killing; but most people do not think about their boss, friend, neighbor or cousin. The TV shows such as Law and Order, Criminal Minds or CSI do not help our image any. But if our image is to change we have to change it.

Because the public links 'danger' to those of us with mental illness, many who are affected with mental illness often refuse to seek help because of the stigma that is attached to being ‘one of them’. We have to step out and show the world that with available, accessible and high quality care we can manage our symptoms and function well, just like those with diabetes do. 

It is also a sign of stigma that we say ‘mentally ill’ to describe someone with mental illness as we do not say ‘cancerous’ to describe people with cancer. We are much more than the parts of our brain that do not function as they should. The reality is that mental illness is physical – unless my brain is not part of my body.


Mental illness is also stigmatized within the health professions because if someone with a mental illness is receiving health on the public dime (Medicare or Medicaid) then it is most likely that they will access care only when they are "a danger to self or others" and the kind of care that could prevent or ameliorate symptoms before a crisis is simply not available or if available, it is only for the lucky few. Feeling mentally unwell is not enough to get care because healthcare is such a precious commodity in this country - whether public or not.

Why We Should Step Out of the Stigma Closet
If women had not stepped out of the secrecy and shame of losing a breast we would not have the movement for research, support and for public education. They had to let everyone know that breast cancer affected women of all colors, classes, creeds, nationalities etc. 

If our only view of the mentally ill is one of limited achievement or of rare violent episodes that end up on the front pages, then the newly diagnosed are at risk of not achieving their full potential because they have no idea of what that may be. Nor do their families or their employers.

Who Are the Mentally Ill
We are a diverse group of people whose biochemistry has gone awry, just as it has for people who suffer from other biochemical disorders. Why stigmatize me because of my brain when my brain works well in so many other ways (such as compassion, humour, and complex problem-solving?

We are friends, family, colleagues and even your healthcare providers. Just like any other illness, it does not discriminate and everyone has a unique experience that is not summarized by scary headlines.

As more people ‘come out’ as mentally ill we can reduce the fear, change stereotypes and give hope to people who are affected by a mental illness. Employers can also see that we can be productive employees who have illnesses that can be treated effectively with the right support.

Coming Out
To those of you out there who are dealing with mental illness, take a brave step and tell someone. The more diverse the faces and lives of the mentally ill, the less shame and stigma we will experience and the more resources will be put into helping to understand and treat one of  the most debilitating health conditions.


For more  information on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses and ways to advocate for mental health services contact: Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, National Alliance on Mental Illness, the American Psychological Association and the National Institute of Mental Health

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