As a recent alarming essay on a popular website reminded us, many still perceive someone with mental illness as evil, dangerous, and in some cases, better off dead.
Over the past decade, the rate of suicides in the U.S. has increased to 12.1 per 100,000 people. Every day, approximately 105 Americans die by suicide. Many studies believe that number is higher. There is one death by suicide in the U.S. every 12.3 minutes.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the USA.
Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year, and a large number of people are debilitated by their psychiatric illness and symptoms.
So those are some basic facts. And they are startling and concerning. We have what many may consider a mental health crisis in the U.S. And we are doing very little about it.
Another, more insidious, crisis proliferates around this one: the stigma associated with mental illness. Those living with a mental illness must fear how they will be perceived by a society that offers little, if any, empathy.
If you have a mental illness and you admit it, you may lose custody of your children, your job, and your health benefits. At a time when support is needed most, the proverbial rug is pulled out from under those who need it desperately.
Recently, a popular website published an alarming essay by a blogger who determined that her once upon a time friend was better off dead (the friend had recently died by what could have been suicide) because she suffered with a mental illness (schizoaffective disorder). The writer went on to say her friend (who was in her early 20s at the time of her death) had “nothing to live for” and had appeared to have been taken over by a “demon.” The piece went on to describe her former friend as “hopeless” and the writer expressed her relief at hearing of the death of this woman (though they had not been in actual touch in quite some time).
I am not writing this to bash that author (many have and will continue to). In some ways she has inadvertently heightened awareness around the subject of mental illness and how we perceive it as a society. My greatest concern (and belief) is that the thoughts she verbalized in her article are shared by many—possibly most. The stigma associated with mental illness and those who suffer from it is deep, dangerous, and contributes to the pain of those who experience it. It also inhibits the possibility for healing.
Chicago based actor/artist Elizabeth Hipwell knows this too well. “All I can think of is how alone I have felt in the journey of dealing with my bipolar depression,” she told me by email. “Mental illness is like no other illness. People disappeared from my life; family members judged and told me to ‘Buck up, and pull yourself out if it’ and ‘If you weren’t so fat you wouldn’t be so depressed.’“
She contrasted the experience of physical illness, and how those around her viewed it, with mental illness. “When I was physically ill I was visited in the hospital and driven home by loved ones; when I was in the mental hospital after having slit my wrists I didn’t have any visitors, I was berated on the phone for being selfish, and I had to get home by myself by bus. I felt abandoned. I ended up back in the hospital for the same reason a few more times after. I came to a point where I had to stop expecting support from those who just weren’t going to give it.” Read more “the fix”…