Out of nowhere, something like an ocean crashes on top of you, burying you in the deep. Your sudden impossible depth, the smothering weight, means your next gasp will be your last. Your brain screams of death’s imminence. And while the clock at your bedside, or in your car, or on your workplace computer shows time ticking faithfully by, that initial terror doesn’t dissipate. It lasts for minutes, sometimes hours. You cry and grasp at those around you, unable to form words. After some time, you realize you may not be dying, but another equally disturbing thought emerges from the frenzy: You’re going crazy.
You’d be in good company. Two of every 10 adults – 45.6 million — experienced some form of mental illness in 2011, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
My first panic attack struck at 14. I had no words to describe it, no explanations, so I kept it to myself. Depression and dysfunction followed. I dropped out of high school. A revolving door of therapists sought to credit my condition to an early trauma. I was prescribed Prozac in my late 20s and took it reluctantly, admonishments that I should just “suck it up” ringing in my head. Other medications followed, but what became a defining characteristic of my life – an unshakable hopelessness that has leached away years of my life – remained.
Until recently, the best popular medicine could offer someone like me was an ever-expanding cabinet of pills and, as a last resort, the intentional seizures of electroconvulsive therapy. Yet more than half of those prescribed the most popular medications will not achieve remission. Despite hundreds of millions sunk into research and treatment, depression has become the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., the number of adults on disability due to mental illness climbed from 1.25 million in 1987 to 3.97 million in 2007.
We are in the grip of an epidemic. Yet the few times the nation has sought to dialogue on mental illness it’s been in relation to one mass shooting or another. We talk about individual rights versus public risks. We rarely ask why so many are sick to begin with or what the unafflicted can do to help.
I had to venture too close to a bad end – one interrupted by a trip to the emergency room, out-patient care in a mental-health treatment center, and participation in a experimental research trial – to finally come out publicly as someone who suffers from mental illness. The process has shown me how strong the stigma surrounding mental illness remains. I’ve met military personnel who kept suicidal ideations quiet for fear of being redlined, office workers terrified they would be fired if their secret were ever exposed, children struggling to convince friends that their illness does not mean they are possessed by spirits or lack faith in God.
For our genetic quirks, our difficulty processing trauma, or bodies’ reactions to environmental toxins, the mentally ill are picked on, spoken down to, and shamed. Such prejudices compound the challenges for those in recovery and, sadly, prevent as many as half of those needing mental-health assistance in this country from seeking it, according to the WHO.
As the National Alliance on Mental Illness gathers in San Antonio for its national convention this week, high on the agenda will be discussing strategies to help end that stigma. While I have achieved remission of most of my symptoms through a newer treatment known as transcranial magnetic stimulation and have been drug-free since January, I’ll be standing with NAMI in those efforts.
I encourage you to join us by educating yourself about mental illness and standing up to the shame of silence – for the millions already in recovery and the millions more who desperately need to know it’s safe to reach out for help.
Greg Harman is the past editor of the San Antonio Current, an independent environmental journalist, and a NAMI member. His writings on mental illness can be found at depression-time.com. The National Alliance on Mental Illness, the nation’s largest grassroots mental-health advocacy organization, is holding their annual convention in San Antonio from June 27 to June 30.
This column was published today in the Austin American-Statesman and will appear tomorrow in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News, and San Antonio Express-News.
Image: “Self-Portrait As A Drowned Man” by Hippolyte Bayard (1801-1887). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.