From the Editor..Everything is better when you talk about itIn the first audience question at last week’s “Into the Light” panel discussion on mental illness, the person who wrote the question was looking for practical tips for dealing with stigma — misconceptions, bias, ignorance — about mental illness. Talk about it, said Troy Otterson, panelist
By: Jana Peterson, Pine Journal
In the first audience question at last week’s “Into the Light” panel discussion on mental illness, the person who wrote the question was looking for practical tips for dealing with stigma — misconceptions, bias, ignorance — about mental illness.
Talk about it, said Troy Otterson, panelist and licensed social worker.
“The bottom line is you need to speak up,” Otterson continued. “Stand up for yourself. Be assertive, talk to people in power at work. Don’t let this happen silently. If we don’t speak about it, it lives in the shadows, in secrecy and remains unchanged.”
May is Mental Health Month. It’s also the month that my mother — who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was a child — died.
She died of a heart attack, not suicide. She had conquered her mental illness through medication (lithium) and therapy long before.
I know now how lucky she was to have accomplished that. And how lucky I was to have a mother who had been touched by mental illness — the highs and the lows of that particular disorder — and survived it, going on to be the best mom I can imagine.
Had my father not argued with the doctors — even when they took him to court — in that small southern Indiana town who wanted him to sign away her rights as a parent and put her in a mental hospital, who knows what would have happened. But he won, and sent her to California to visit her brother, who was on the mend from his own battles with bipolar disorder (known as manic depression back then).
Even then, California was ahead of the country in terms of mental health treatment. Lithium had only recently been approved in this country; it had helped him and it worked for her.
I didn’t really understand all that at the age of 6. I just knew that some days she didn’t want to get out of bed and other days she would buy me pretty much anything I wanted. When she was gone — in the hospital twice and then to California — I missed her dearly.
After she got better, the fact that she had suffered from mental illness was never a secret. She talked about it openly with me and anyone else who asked.
I don’t remember feeling ashamed, but I must have been for a time, because I remember the relief that I felt when I finally told one of my friends about my mother’s mental illness. I was still in grade school. Simply talking about it — not hiding it or trying to forget it — made me feel as though a burden had been lifted.
Since then I’ve learned more about bipolar disorder from talking with both my parents and my uncle, as well as reading books. It’s a fascinating illness, and one shared by many artists and writers through the ages.
In fact, even though it doesn’t come up in conversation often enough, mental illness is incredibly common.
According to the keynote speaker at last week’s conference on mental illness, one in four adults suffers from a diagnosable mental health disorder every year in the United States. About one in 17 adults suffers from a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression, or bipolar disorder. Every year about 20 percent of 13- to 18-year-olds suffer from a mental health problem and about 13percent of 8- to 13-year-olds suffer from one.
While I’m certain my mother wouldn’t wish bipolar disorder on anyone, I don’t wish she hadn’t had it.
It was part of who she was and growing up with that contributed to who I am today. Living with bipolar disorder helped shape my mother, in the same way other life experiences shaped her. I think it made her realize early on what truly matters in life. She always took time to listen and talk with people, young and old: her friends, my friends, students and colleagues at the junior college where she worked.
I never knew how many lives she touched until she died at the age of 50, and the line to get in to the funeral home went down the block.
Mental illness is nothing to hide. It is something that should be acknowledged, examined, discussed and treated. For most people, it is something that can be managed — allowing them to get on with life.
Like my mother.