In case you missed it, October 10th was World Mental Health Day. The annual observance is sponsored by the World Health Organization to raise awareness of critically important mental health issues.
I was inspired to see the tremendous outpouring of sentiments expressed on social media, ranging from those with mental health conditions, to their family and friends, to the public at large.
it’s time for more people around the world to step up and sustain the
momentum by uniting in a daily global effort to #EndTheStigma.
One place to start is by telling our stories.
That’s because comprehensive public information, outreach, education and communication — both online and off — are solid strategies to eradicate myths, fears and stereotypes surrounding people with mental illness.
I have my own story to tell. It’s about my mom, Maxine. I’ve watched her struggle with various mental health ailments for decades — mainly when I was living at home as a young boy and teenager growing up on Long Island in the suburbs of New York City.
Maxine has faced chronic mental illness for most of her adult life.
However, I’ve never opened up about mom’s challenging medical condition outside of my family, friends and her physicians. The reason is because of the painful stigma associated with mental illness.
As public discourse about mental illness increases, the stigma incrementally decreases. I hope this article helps encourage others to share their stories.
Consider the following statistics from the National Alliance on Mental Illness:
· “Approximately 1 in 5 adults in the U.S.—43.8 million, or 18.5%—experiences mental illness in a given year.”
· “Approximately 1 in 25 adults in the U.S.—9.8 million, or 4.0%—experiences a serious mental illness in a given year that substantially interferes with or limits one or more major life activities.”
· “Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13–18 (21.4%) experiences a severe mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8–15, the estimate is 13%.”
· “1.1% of adults in the U.S. live with schizophrenia” and “2.6% of adults in the U.S. live with bipolar disorder.”
· “6.9% of adults in the U.S.—16 million—had at least one major depressive episode in the past year.”
· “18.1% of adults in the U.S. experienced an anxiety disorder such as posttraumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and specific phobias.”
· “Among the 20.2 million adults in the U.S. who experienced a substance use disorder, 50.5%—10.2 million adults—had a co-occurring mental illness.”
We can all do our part to help end the stigma by bringing issues of mental health to public attention.
It was a phone call I had hoped to never receive.
One night, many years ago, I got a frightening call from a hospital in New York City about my mom. I was a student at the University of Maryland at the time.
I immediately felt a knot in my stomach, as I took a deep breath and listened to the nurse:
Bellevue is the oldest public hospital in America, according to Wikipedia. It was founded in 1736 and handles about 130,000 emergency room visits annually. The hospital specializes in mental health care and emergency psychiatric services.
My parents were separated at the time of the incident. Maxine was living alone. Dad was staying with a friend. My sister was living in San Francisco.
Maxine had appeared to be okay. I regularly spoke to her on the phone and the neighbors checked on her periodically.
But then Maxine had a disturbing episode of paranoid schizophrenia, the first and only time she experienced this insidious mental condition. She sincerely believed some unknown persons were stalking her. She thought her life was in imminent danger.
As it turned out, Maxine had stopped taking her medication without telling the doctor or anyone else.
The police found Maxine wandering aimlessly in the early morning hours
amid the streets of Brooklyn. A good samaritan spotted her acting
erratically and called 911.Maxine and my dad lived in Bayside, Queens, at the time.
This was after they sold our house in Roslyn. They also bought a condo in South Florida and became “snow birds” in the winter months.
Apparently, Maxine had fled the apartment in Queens and took the Long Island Rail Road to Penn Station in Manhattan. Then she hopped on various subway lines until emerging somewhere in Brooklyn dazed and confused.
recall fear and panic gripping me as I hung up the phone with the
hospital. I rushed to drive up to New York. College was put on hold.
I’m still haunted by memories of seeing mom in the psychiatric unit for the first time. My heart dropped and I nearly lost it emotionally. Some patients were talking to themselves. Others plodded around like zombies.
I befriended a man there and asked him to keep an eye on Maxine. There were a few patients who appeared dangerous and I was worried about her safety. He agreed to help.
In return for his assistance, I bought the man a box of cigarettes and delivered it when I visited. I remember one woman who was locked in confinement, banging on the door in rage through a small unbreakable window. Another woman harassed Maxine and stole some of her belongings.
returning to my car I started sobbing uncontrollably like a baby. I had
been holding it in during that first visit, trying to remain strong and
put on a brave face for mom.
I stayed in my parents’ apartment for over a week and visited Maxine every day until she was released. I spoke with the doctors and closely monitored her situation, which gradually improved.
Yet this experience was emotionally devastating. It took time for me to recover after those long visits. The stress, sadness and frustration were overwhelming.
I had never been in a real psychiatric hospital. I was only familiar with what I had read or watched on TV and in movies.
I also never expected this would happen to Maxine. That’s because her mental condition was mostly mitigated by medication and therapy. She had never been hospitalized. This was her worst psychiatric episode ever.
The good news is that Maxine recovered once she was placed on the right treatment plan. My dad began visiting too and they were reunited after she left the hospital.
While Maxine’s depression and anxiety still flared up at times, she never had a similar episode. My parents eventually left New York and moved to Florida permanently. They lived together for many years thereafter through good times and bad. My father passed away in 2013. Maxine stayed in the condo.
Today, she continues to live independently, albeit to a relative extent. We found a wonderful caregiver who has been coming over to help Maxine every day for years.
Maxine leads an introverted and isolated life on a tightly regimented
schedule. This allows her to function normally, to the extent possible,
per daily life activities.
There’s still a huge public stigma associated with mental illness, even in today’s modern age. Will it ever end?
Perhaps more people will come to terms with the reality that mental illness is similar in a general sense to any other serious illness, such as diabetes, cancer and other medical conditions.
But other illnesses aren’t considered taboo topics in society at large.
Even though mental health support groups and advocacy organizations have grown over the years, the stigma lingers to the detriment of society.
We hear about mental illness in the news, but usually in connection to mass shootings, suicides and related tragedies.
These negative stories serve to reinforce the public myths, fears and stereotypes which are already so prevalent. It’s rare to see a positive story in the news media about people with mental illness. Journalists need to do a better job with explanatory reporting and highlighting success stories.
We unify to observe World Mental Health Day, week or month to raise public awareness. However, most folks then go back to their daily routines and don’t think much about it — unless they are personally affected or know someone who is, like a friend or family member.
as a society do we come to grips with the vexing issue of mental
illness? How can we accept mental illness for what it is and what it is
not? Are the answers too elusive?
Mental illness is a harrowing disease which has been badly portrayed by the news media, popular culture and entertainment for decades.
It’s no longer the case that men with white uniforms show up, put the patient in a straight jacket and take them away.
I’m always reminded of the famous 1975 award-winning film starring Jack Nicholson, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
While medical treatments have vastly improved over the decades, the disgrace, humiliation and embarrassment associated with mental illness remains a persistent problem. People still use terms openly and behind closed doors like “lunatic” and “crazy” — to put it mildly.
the same old myths, fears and stereotypes about mental illness still
plague society, from the workplace to every other place.
Mental illness is still a taboo topic in the 21st century Information Age.
Obviously, these are perplexing questions with no easy answers — otherwise we would have found the answers by now.
Perhaps advances in medical technology and biomedical breakthroughs will ultimately alleviate or cure most mental illnesses.
But until that day arrives, hundreds of millions of people worldwide will continue to suffer in silence. This is neither fair nor reasonable.
We all must do more to end the stigma. Everyone can help in a small way by fostering more open communication, education, advocacy and outreach.
The current situation is simply untenable
What will YOU do to help?
NOTE: This article also appears on Thrive Global via Medium (where you can interact via applauding/liking and commenting).
NOTE: David previously worked as a federal government spokesman and senior communications advisor for the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which enforces Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Some mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety disorder, fall under the ADA as disability impairments (in addition to physical impairments).