"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
November 20, 2012
Identity and Mental Illness: Not, What I Am, but Who I Am
by Sarah Hancock

The other day I went to a service project as the passenger in my friend’s car. When we pulled into the parking lot, a baby blue, vintage Volkswagen bug pulled beside us and parked. My friend turned to me and said, “That’s my brother. He’s schizophrenic.” I stared at her for a moment, collecting my wits, and asked, “What’s his name?”

Gee. How many of us have done that? Some of you may ask, what? Done what? Introduced someone as their diagnosis. Come on now, we can all sheepishly admit we have.  So this is my promise to you: I won't do it any more.

I share this incident in an effort to plead with you to reevaluate how you interact with and think about people who have mental illness. For those who have mental illness, I share this as a plea to you to reevaluate how you think about yourself.

Would you ever introduce a friend to your “cancerous sister”? Would you introduce your coworker to the diabetic? Nope. Or at least, I hope not. Don’t you think it’s inappropriate to disclose someone’s medical history? So why do it with mental illness? Why the double standard? Yet people do it all the time. Suddenly gossip morphs into necessary knowledge. A little bit of the natural man coming to the surface? Okay. Maybe it’s just human nature to fill in the details, but what details are really necessary?

There are three primary reasons I think that you shouldn’t refer to someone as their diagnosis or even tell others about the diagnosis, especially when mental health is involved. First, it doesn’t allow a new person the opportunity to meet a person without the looming negative stigma associated with mental illness. Second, the more a person with mental illness is referred to by their illness, the more people treat them as ill. Third, when people are constantly referred to as their diagnosis, it leads them to believe all they are is the diagnosis.

When I was first diagnosed and struggling through the depths of my symptoms, I often sat down at meetings where people spontaneously stood up and moved. At first I honestly thought they had to make a last minute trip to the restroom. Perhaps many of them did.

But I will never forget the day when I sat down next to a young woman who got up and moved to the row behind me. When questioned by her new neighbor about the sudden spontaneous space shuffle, the young women loudly whispered, “I can’t sit next to her. Didn’t you know she’s schizophrenic and gets shock treatments?”

Tears filled my eyes. I sat there waiting for the meeting to start while staring at the teary, shimmering pattern on my skirt, all while wondering if that’s all they saw in me. As time passed, I wondered if that was all everyone saw in me.

There were many dark and dreary moments where that’s all I saw in myself. Lost was the girl who loved to write and sing at the top of her lungs to the car radio. Lost was the woman who’d been a college leadership trainer, camp counselor, editor and oral historian. Lost was the trilingual returned missionary.

Lost was the girl who loved expressing herself with ceramics, the one who frequently enjoyed laughing so hard her face and stomach hurt. Lost was the girl who planned the parties and group dates. Lost, the girl who excelled academically. Sometimes I wonder if I would have lost sight of all of those things had more people seen me for those qualities, rather than seen me as a scary mentally ill person.

You may think my perspective is skewed. Surely my illness affected how I perceived the reaction of others. Maybe it was all in my mind. A figment of my imagination. A result of the illness. I wish it were.

I’ve been to social activities where people I didn’t even know actually asked me what it was like to have shock treatments and to hear voices. Their tone made me feel like some sort of freak show.

Often I discussed it with a trusted friend, asking her if she’d heard it. Reality testing. She always did. There were times in my life where it got me down; now I’ve gotten used to it. When a person asks me such questions one-on-one, truly wanting to learn, it’s a decidedly different circumstance — one that I welcome.

I guess my question is: When you know someone has a mental illness, do you further perpetuate the negative stigma by referring to them as their illness? Or do you refer to them by their characteristics, qualities and talents? If the only thing you can see is the illness, you need to look deeper.  

If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness and it’s all you can see or who you’ve become, take a step back and remember. Remember who you once were, what you liked to do, where you liked to go. Revisit a favorite thing about yourself.

Take a moment to enjoy an old talent you’ve shelved while struggling to take care of your symptoms. Get out of your head and enjoy something you hold dear. I know it may feel awkward at first since you haven’t done it in so long, but those lost qualities and talents are still a very important part of who you really are. You are you; you are not your diagnosis!

If you love, serve, or work with someone who has a diagnosis, take a moment to evaluate how you talk about him with others. Work to recognize every aspect of his personality.

Work to point out his strengths. Work to focus on the fact that she is child of a loving Heavenly Father who allowed her to have this illness not as a punishment but rather as witness of an abiding confidence God has in her. He knows all things, including her true, inner strength and potential. Remind your loved one of this truth.

One wise woman (not me!) diagnosed with a mental illness explained it quite simply by saying, “It is something that I live with, that I attempt to circumnavigate around, but it is not Who I Am.”

Please, stand with me and take the pledge. We will stand together and recognize people for who they truly are, sons and daughters of a living and loving God.


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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isnít just possible ó itís probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying ó not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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