Depression, Mental Illness

End The Stigma: Prejudice Still Punishing The Mentally Ill

Self-portait as a drowned man

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 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.


17 thoughts on “End The Stigma: Prejudice Still Punishing The Mentally Ill

  1. Rose says:

    Lovely. Nice post and so glad to see you out and about on the web-o-sphere again. :) Keep writing and fighting for what you believe in. I’ve got your back!

  2. Pingback: Reblogging: End The Stigma: Prejudice Still Punishing The Mentally Ill | shatteredandshining

  3. Great post. But I have a hard time with the proposition that those who are aware of the destructiveness of man and feel this truth of what is really going on in their hearts, minds and bodies are the ones who are mentally ill.

    Because we can’t be blind, deaf and dumb to the insane social demands and be co-conspirators in widespread planetary destruction, we are labeled mentally ill. We are called mentally ill for seeing truth and not liking it and not wanting to participate in the same ignorant, selfish ways. And yet, we may not have a model of what constructive actions to take instead. We certainly develop a lot of unhealthy behaviors to cope, but that doesn’t make the PERSON ill. So many people confuse behavior with the person. We all do good things and we all do bad things, but nothing that we we do makes us intrinsically good OR bad. I’m not a good person because I use healthy behaviors any more than I would be a bad person if I used unhealthy behaviors.

    But dividing up people into ‘normal’/mentally healthy and abnormal/mentally ill does just that. And what most people don’t realize is that the line between the two is thinner than they realize. And as we can see with the changes to the DSM V, people can fall into and out of normal based at any time the manual changes.

    I don’t think we need to lift the stigma of mental illness. I think we need a radically different paradigm to define the problems of modern living and to find creative solutions to solve them. And there are some therapists who actually believe that, while maladaptive behaviors can be harmful to the individual using them, they actually serve a positive purpose.

    I’m with Thomas Szasz on this one:

    “Mental illness” is an expression, a metaphor that describes an offending, disturbing, shocking, or vexing conduct, action, or pattern of behavior, such as schizophrenia, as an “illness” or “disease”. Szasz wrote: “If you talk to God, you are praying; If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia. If the dead talk to you, you are a spiritualist; If you talk to the dead, you are a schizophrenic.”

    ~ Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental Illness

    “Only after we abandon the pretence that mind is brain and that mental disease is brain disease can we begin the honest study of human behaviour and the means people use to help themselves and others cope with the demands of living.”

    ~Thomas Szasz, Coercion as a Cure

    And, if you can, see if you can’t fit in a piece about mind-body medicine, like they have for trauma treatment. NICAMB is one place to start, as they have neuroscience research on their side.

    There are many holistic body modalities supported by science.

    “The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) is a pioneer and leader in the field of mind-body-spirit medicine.

    As an accredited provider of continuing education for health and mental health care professionals for over 20 years, NICABM is at the forefront of developing and delivering programs with “take home” ideas, immediately adaptable for practitioners to use with their patients.

    We offer programs in brain science, treating trauma, mindfulness meditation, and other cutting-edge topics in mind-body medicine. Through expert interviews highlighting the latest ideas, we equip practitioners with innovative and effective techniques to use with clients.

    The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine supports the integration of mind-body and behavioral medicine with Western medicine. NICABM does not advocate the use of alternative and/or complementary medicine in lieu of conventional medicine. NICABM supports the thoughtful consideration of the research and efficacy of behavioral medicine and, where appropriate, the application and integration of these treatment modalities.”

    I think more people need to know about these other resources. You can’t just resolve whole body problems by just targeting the brain. I’ve listened to many of their webinars and my own husband is a practitioner of a holistic treatment modality (craniosacral therapy) and I know I’ve experienced life-changing benefits from that.

    I don’t see anything on NAMI’s website that includes new trauma treatment trends. I wonder why. They only use medications, pyschosocial, ECT and TMS. Can the NAMI people talk to the NICAMB people? Psychosocial therapy takes a long time, medications are only partially effective for most people, ECT is rather risky and TMS…well I only know your experience and that of John Elder Robisons (he used rTMS for his Asperger’s). Getting the body involved speeds up the process.

    Anyway, all the best…


    • i don’t disagree with you. and i think what you’re addressing is an important conversation for those within the mental health community. but for me, addressing (as i am in this newspaper column) a mainstream audience in texas’ urban centers, it’s a distraction. gaining acceptance for those who suffer is my primary concern. the labels are subordinate. i also don’t agree with the assumption that those who suffer do so because of awareness of “the destructiveness of man.” while i think this growing awareness causes a great deal of dread globally, the explanation does not give due respect to those who suffer from unresolved or biologically stored trauma, unquiet minds born of genetic predispositions, or environmental (and i include industrial diets here) poisoning.

      • I see what you are saying. I also expanded my response on my blog, because I know you have a target audience, and so do I. Feel free to delete my comment if you want to. :)

  4. Pingback: End The Stigma: Prejudice Still Punishing The Mentally Ill | Depression Time | MAKE BPD STIGMA-FREE!

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