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June 22, 2012
Pebbles, Potholes, and Perspective
What, Really, is Mental Illness?
by Sarah Hancock

When people are first diagnosed with a mental illness, everything around them shatters. Suddenly they picture themselves tied up in a straitjacket and locked away in some asylum. They think, Is that who I really am?

It feels as though every single goal they ever dreamed of achieving is ripped away, handing them a death sentence instead.

No, I take that back. Having a mental illness can be worse than a death sentence. Here's why.

When you think about mental illness, what are the first things that come to mind? Straitjackets, mumbling incessantly, heinous murderers -- the list goes on and on, none of it flattering. Why is that? Because the public at large only takes their information about mental illness from what they see on TV or in the movies.

Let's face it. Movies, news, television shows and any other media could never make money broadcasting stories about everyday people living boring lives. Instead the media turn their attention to things either positively amazing or downright horrific. Average doesn't sell.

Consequently, the general public gains all information about mental illness from either positively amazing people (like John Forbes Nash, Jr. a mathematician who received the Nobel for Economic Sciences in 1994, diagnosed with schizophrenia) or by heinous murderers diagnosed with mental illness. I'd give you an example but you can probably already think of several on your own.

If you believed the media, people who have a mental illness just don't fall in the gray area between amazing and horrific. In that respect they're like Mormons. You rarely hear about everyday Mormons on the news. But the minute a member of the Church does something bad, the news headlines read, "Mormon Steals Car!"

However, I bet that your preconceived notions about mental illness are just as erroneous as the average nonmember's understanding of what members of the Church truly believe. Did I just say that?

Many people think that schizophrenics are violent. However, evidence suggests that "people with psychotic symptoms account for only 5 percent of violent crime, and some estimate the number closer to 1 percent. In fact, people living with schizophrenia are in greater danger of being victimized by both violent and non-violent crimes than the general population." Surprised?

Mental illness is simply misunderstood, yet it's something that affects everyone in one way or another. If you think you don't know anyone with mental illness, you're wrong. I promise!

According to the National Alliant for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), "One in four adults -- approximately 57.7 million Americans -- experience a mental health disorder in a given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder and about one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder."

The thing is, no one talks about it. Well, hopefully that is about to change.

I can be quite verbal about my experience with mental illness. I'll be the first to admit many people don't feel comfortable about my candidness, but I am candid for a reason. When I was diagnosed and drudging through the worst symptoms I'd ever experienced, I felt alone. What made matters worse was no one wanted to talk about it. People felt uncomfortable when I brought it up. I felt completely alienated.

I never want anyone else to feel like that. So, sometimes if there is a moment in class where I feel my experience with mental illness taught me something I share it, regardless.

One Sunday after sharing such an experience a sister came up to me after class in tears because she'd felt all alone and didn't know where to go to talk to about her depression. She was grateful I said something, enabling her to recognize she wasn't alone. She swore me to secrecy, not wanting anyone else to know about her struggle.

Ironically, a sister who'd sat next to this first sister also approached me afterwards, asking to talk to me more about her depression while swearing me to secrecy. She, too, didn't want anyone to think less of her for struggling with depression. Two sisters sitting next to each other were struggling with the desperate symptoms of depression, yet both were unable to support or console one another because of the embarrassment of being labeled as mentally ill.

Feeling isolated in a room full of people can be worse than a death sentence.

So what can you do about it? Be willing to talk. I'm not saying you have to shout it from the rooftops, nor am I saying that being glib about details is always appropriate. I am saying that in order for the general public to become savvier about mental illness, we need to start talking about it.

Helping people become more aware of mental illness will help their understanding to grow. Only then will the general public realize people with mental illness are just everyday people. After all, one fourth of the general public already knows that since they have a mental illness!

Perhaps its someone you are sitting next to at church or someone you share a cubicle with at work. Perhaps someone you love needs your support and you don't even know how to give it. If we all start talking about mental illness a little more, everyone will realize no one is alone.

Be wise in sharing things with others. You'll be surprised at how many people understand because they've been there too. So, back to the original question: What is mental illness? Start talking and asking questions from sources outside the sensationalized media, and you'll find the real answer.

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