More Bullshit About Mental Illness

by Bill Brenner on August 30, 2010

Every once in awhile I read something on mental illness that sends my blood boiling. Please indulge me while I rant about one such item.

Mood music:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BPfkK7bcyfE&fs=1&hl=en_US]

I recently tripped across a website called HeretoHelp, a project of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information. It’s a great resource for people like me who are recovering from mental illness and addictive behavior. It’s chock full of articles from medical professionals and people who suffer with various mental disorders. There’s also a news feed that includes upcoming events like mental illness screenings. I like the no-bullshit approach to the writing and layout.

The item that set me off was a fact sheet on discrimination and stigmas around mental illness. Specifically, it documented instances where employers view mental illness as a weakness; a reason not to hire someone. I’m not suggesting this form of prejudice is limited to something like depression. How many job candidates admit freely to having a heart problem or cancer? Employers discriminate against that, too, especially when they worry about health care costs and potential disability leave. I’m not even going to suggest that those are evil concerns.

But there’s something that strikes me as more insidious about the perception society has of people with mental illness. If you’re depressed, that somehow makes you a weakling who can’t cope with the normal challenges we’re all supposed to know how to deal with.

It’s true that someone in the grip of depression can’t cope with those challenges. I’ve greeted many “normal” situations like a crisis that threatened to bring everything crashing down. When I worked at The Eagle-Tribune, I was so paralyzed with depression and worry that I missed a lot of work. I also spent many a shift so mentally weak that I could barely edit properly. By the end of my time there, I was as close to a nervous breakdown as I’d ever come. I’d come much closer in the two years after I left that job, but I was in a pretty low place.

I still feel badly about leaving half-baked edits for the morning editors.

But here’s where I was lucky: Though I might have been looked at as weak by some of my colleagues, I wasn’t tossed out on my ass. I worried that I would be, but I had a lot of support from bosses like Gretchen Putnam, who I consider a dear friend today. At SearchSecurity.com, I had another nurturing boss in Anne Saita. I was in her employ when the mental illness, depression and addiction really started coming to a head. By some freak of nature, I was able to do some quality work for her during that time, but trust me on this: Had she not been the type of person I could open up to about what I was working through, I almost certainly would have failed at that job. I was that close to the edge.

In my current job, I’ve been Blessed enough to work around open-minded people that I was able to start up this blog without fear of getting blackballed.

So yes, I’ve been lucky. Others have not been as fortunate, however, and their livelihoods have suffered.

The article makes the following point: “Even clinical depression, which has arguably received the most media attention this past decade, is still stigmatized. A 2005 Australian study noted that around one quarter of people felt depression was a sign of personal weakness and would not employ someone with depression. Nearly one third felt depressed people “could snap out of it,” and 42 percent said they would not vote for a politician with depression.”

Considering that one of our greatest presidents suffered from crushing depression, that last sentence is particularly unfortunate.

The article also noted how addiction is also viewed as a weakness of character, something that a “strong” person could stop simply because it’s wrong.

“Addiction, which is a chronic and disabling disorder, is also often thought of as a moral deficiency or lack of willpower, and there is the attitude that people can just decide to stop drinking or using drugs if they want to. The study of the effects of stigma on substance use disorders is still a fairly undeveloped area, but research is revealing that social stigma and attitudes towards addiction are preventing people from seeking help.”

I love the description of addiction being a lack of willpower, because in the bigger picture a lack of willpower never held a person back in society. It suggests that someone who can’t help but eat junk food all day is somehow better than someone who can’t stop shooting heroin or drinking. Hell, smoking cigarettes with a few beers or a few glasses of wine is more accepted than the illegal addictions.

True, something like heroin can take you to a place where you no longer function in society. But my addiction was binge eating. It was perfectly legal. But the state it brought me to was about as bad as a heroin addiction. When all you can do is lay on the couch and isolate yourself from the rest of the world, it doesn’t matter what you’re addicted to, does it? The result is the same.

Maybe expecting society to  stop thinking of the depressed and addicted as weak outcasts is asking too much. It probably is.

All I know is that nothing will change unless more people in recovery work to break the stigma. I know many drug counselors, therapists and 12-Steppers who are doing just that. But we clearly have a long, long way to go before an environment exists where most sufferers can get the help they need and return to the world as productive members of society.

I’ll do my part by continuing to write this blog and sponsoring others who want to turn their lives around.

That’s all I can do, I suppose.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Finley August 30, 2010 at 7:27 am

Yeah, that dismissive “snap out of it” business has always struck me as cold, mean, and ignorant. It’s like telling someone with a bad case of the flu to just knock off that fever-and-throwing up stuff, or telling someone with rheumatoid arthritis to crack those stiff knuckles and get busy playing the piano like everyone else.

serenityunicorn August 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm

Three cheers to you! Keep strong… I have many friends who face these challenges as well as myself. We should be handing out love and perhaps a hug… not judgment.

Trish Austin September 3, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Well said! It’s hard for me to believe that people remain so ignorant. I’ve not had much opportunity to be out in the work force.

I keep busy being a mom and writing. But, through blogs like yours and the news etc. I get the reality of the stigma still lives and thrives. I wrote an article for Helium about Depression(One of my conditions is Bipolar II). I got a comment from the mental health team that it was an exceptional article. But, my fellow Helium writer’s rated an article number one that was more of “a pick yourself up from your bootstraps article”. I couldn’t believe it. Not that my article deserved to be the top. But, the one they chose was making depression into a weakness.
Great Post! I’m happy you had support at your jobs!

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