This is Hard
I sat down this evening to find some stuff I could write a few posts about. I went to google news and did a search for “mental illness” and one for “bipolar disorder” and looked through everything that had come up in the past week.
There was a fair amount of stuff – some workers in the CA Department of Mental health are working enough overtime to double their salaries, continuing involvement in your field of work after retiring may help mental health, some news updates on the British guy scheduled for execution in China – so I just picked out a couple of stories to look at. I was specifically looking for something that would be positive or at least neutral – something that wasn’t about people with mental disabilities being violent criminals, or about how pharmaceutical companies are making money.
So I picked an article that seemed positive: a piece by Glenn Close in the Huffington Post about ending stigma. It’s titled Mental Illness: the Stigma of Silence, and there’s a lot in it that’s great. She criticizes the movie Fatal Attraction (in which she starred) for portraying her character as a dangerous psychopath and misrepresenting the reality of mental illness. She points out how other “topics that were once unspeakable,” like breast cancer and AIDS, have gained wide acceptance and awareness, while there is largely silence on the issue of mental illness. She is frustrated by the societal assumption that people with mental disabilities are lost causes. She even calls out ableist language like “‘crazy,’ ‘nuts,’ or ‘psycho’.”
But. She opens the piece by saying that “mental illness and [she] are no strangers” – and then cites her “challenge — and the privilege — of playing characters who have deep psychological wounds” as the basis of her authority. She also mentions that her “sister suffers from a bipolar disorder and [her] nephew from schizoaffective disorder” (emphasis mine). Which … isn’t great and made me frown a bit. But I could have overlooked that – it’s an article with a lot of visibility that makes strong arguments against stigma, it’s connected to an organization “that strives to inspire people to start talking openly about mental illness, to break through the silence and fear [and has] the support of every major, American mental health organization and numerous others.”
Except then I clicked through to the website of the organization, Bring Change 2 Mind. And here is the first thing I saw: (screencap of a video, so excuse the graphics)
I literally gasped out loud. She is a mom, his mom. And he is not even her son, not even a person, not even a person with schizophrenia, not even a schizophrenic, he is labeled with his diagnosis. There’s other photos on the front page- someone with a “post traumatic stress disorder” shirt, and Glenn Close (wearing a “sister” shirt) sitting next to her sister, who is wearing a “bipolar shirt.” And I closed the window. Any kind of anti-stigma campaign that would involve me wearing a shirt saying “bipolar” on it is not a campaign I want to be a part of. More power to those who did choose to be involved, but it just feels wrong and isolating to me. Like that is the only relevant characteristic of the person with mental illness, while people without mental illness are defined in terms of families, relationships to other people.
And that’s why this (and by ‘this’ I mean being a person with a mental disability) is so hard – even those allies who genuinely want to end stigma and address ableism can do things that feel like a slap in the face. We are embedded in a culture so steeped in ableism with institutions providing a long term structure for discrimination and dismissal that it shows up everywhere you look – even when you’re intentionally looking for something good and supportive. So some days it seems easier not to pay attention to mental health issues at all, because around any corner could be something like this.