I drove home from Philadelphia yesterday tuned into a local radio station airing a panel discussion on mental illness. The topic was our failed mental health care system, especially as it pertained to the individuals who perpetrated the recent incidents of senseless killing. The Aurora shooting, the attack on the Navy yard, and the nightmare of Sandy Hook all triggered national conversations about mental health care reform. Unfortunately, media attention waned when the next big news event upstaged it.
The discussion I heard yesterday was a bit different because a man diagnosed with bipolar disorder was part of the panel. This really impressed me because he brought a level of authenticity to the conversation. Usually, when the national media reports on the subject, the diagnosed are not included in the conversation. Maybe this explains why their message always seems to be this. Violent, untreated mentally ill people surround us, waiting to explode unless our mental health system is reformed. Call your congressman and demand change now—protect the lives of your family—before the next major calamity distracts you.
I’m diagnosed as bipolar 2, a bona fide mental illness, and I don’t believe I’m in any way violent, or out of control. I really hate the way we’re portrayed in all forms of media, including television and movies. The characters on the screen never seem like real people, just the personifications of the disorder. It always feels like the main character is the illness, and shall I add the most dramatic aspects of the illness. When was the last time you saw a movie with a mentally ill protagonist, who was more multifaceted than the behaviors that came with the diagnosis? I’ll make a cup of coffee while you think about it.
We are more complex than our illness. We have jobs, families, hobbies, and talents. Here’s the truth about mental illness and what it looks like. It looks like the people all around you, your friends, co-workers and family members. Yes, some of us have symptoms that cannot be hidden, and are more difficult to control, but the majority of us are unrecognizable.
I applaud this man who agreed to discuss his condition on the radio. If we all felt safe coming out of the closet, we could begin a conversation about mental health issues as they affect the lives of actual human beings. However, as long as there is a stigma to fear, we will hide our diagnoses, and our voices, the ones with real experience and promising ideas, will remain stifled. Until then, I will pray never to hear about another untreated person with a gun.