Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Face of "Mental Illness"

I recently read/saw that an anchor on a major new station referred to Ariel Castro - the man who kidnapped, held hostage, and tortured three women for years - as the "face of mental illness".  Now, I am not very fond of the term mental illness to begin with. It's so often used as a negative, as a disparaging term. It seems to be used as a generalization ... "this is what people with mental illness are like". And yet "mental illness", as defined by the new DSM V, covers everything from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to Major Depressive Disorder to Substance Use Disorder to Sleep-Wake Disorders. Given this, it's pretty tough (ie almost impossible) for one "face" to represent mental illness.

But let's leave aside for a moment my personal dis-taste for the use of the term based on the stigma it creates. Instead, let's use it in its literal sense - an illness that affects the brain/mind. That "housekeeping" out of the way, I'll get back to the primary concern of this post - "the face".  Ariel Castro may be the face of a kidnapper, the face of a torturer. Those things are literally defined by the actions he did. But let me tell you something. He's not the face of mental illness. He's no mascot, no representation of the mental health community. Want to know why? Because, this is the face of someone with a mental health condition:

For those who don't know me in person, that's me. All 5'0, 112 pounds of me who literally won't hurt a fly - if I see a bug inside I gently put it on a napkin and take it outside so that it has a chance of life. Not exactly similar to the "face of mental illness" as represented by the media. Bet yet, I do in fact have a mental health condition. It's called cyclothymia. I've apparently had it since birth and I was diagnosed at  age 29. At times, it makes me anxious and emotional and jittery and occasionally depressed. It may result in things flying out of my mouth before they've been filtered by my brain, which is quite regrettable. But it doesn't make me commit murder or kidnapping or petty theft for that matter.  I've never even skipped out on paying a parking ticket. I'm certainly not perfect. But that's human life. Nobody is. 

And let me tell you a few more things about this "face" with a mental health condition. It's a face of someone who has owned and run her own travel business for the last seven years; who has a Bachelors degree and a Masters degree (3.86 and 3.9 GPAs respectively, in case you were wondering). It's the face of someone who sat for six years on the chapter board of a very well-respected industry organization, and who was the chapter president of another well-respected industry organization - simultaneously. It's the face of someone who has a large, supportive, diverse group of people in her life, and many family and friends who consider her their "rock" when things get tough for them. Ironic that the one that society labels as having "problems" is the one everyone turns to for sound advice, is it not? That might give you some insight into the accuracy of people's labels. 

Now, I'm not saying this to toot my own horn. I may be a lot of things, but I've never been conceited in any way. I'm providing this information to show the type of person that represents the *real* "face of mental illness." I'm sure there are people with mental health conditions that do terrible things. There are also people with cancer, and COPD, and kidney disease, and heart conditions, and those with no diagnosed conditions at all that do terrible things. But I've yet to see the time when the media comes on and says "well, that murderer had asthma, what do you expect? Those asthmatics just can't be trusted. We have to learn to contain them." And I'm glad for that. Nobody should be discriminated against because of a condition affecting any of their organs or systems or joints or any other body part... including their brain. 

We have a long way to go until we get to that point of no discrimination. As positive as I'd like to be, I'm skeptical if we ever will. But for now, I'll try to do my part, pointing out and dispelling stigmas as best I can, and hoping that my readers will understand my message and pass it along as best as they can. 

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