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)

Bring Change 2 Mind

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.

16 thoughts on “This is Hard

  1. This is a great post and pointing out this kind of thing is what makes me really like this job. I feel like I might have seen the campaign you mention and not really understand why it felt alienating and made me feel alone. Thank you.

  2. Wait, so would my shirt say “Severe depression with mild anxiety,” or “Severe anxiety with minor depression?” Cause people just can’t seem to agree. Maybe I should get two, just to be on the safe side…

    .-= mk´s last blog ..How do you do it? =-.

  3. That picture basically says that due to “schizophrenia”, that man cannot be “dad” or “brother” or “son”. All he is is schizophrenia. That’s sad. It’s bad enough being chronically ill. Being completely dehumanized by your illness as well must be terrible.
    .-= Personal Failure´s last blog ..Women’s Bodies =-.

  4. Yeah. I outright don’t look for anything anymore because people like me (who identify as psych survivors or expatients, and in my case barely survived the system) are not even on the map in campaigns like that, or else seen as some kind of joke or menace to people with “real problems” if we are mentioned at all. After awhile it gets too painful to read over and over again (in news items like that) about a world where we are supposed to be invisible and stay that way.
    .-= Amanda´s last blog ..Breathtaking to behold: talking back to dismissal =-.

  5. Oh wow, that’s dreadful. My grandpa wasn’t “schizophrenia,” he was my grandpa. You know?

    It’s really hard to address mental illness with people who don’t have it or don’t get it. I feel like we’re in a real double bind. Most people don’t understand that just because it doesn’t have an obvious physical component, doesn’t mean mental illness isn’t real. (I say “obvious” because there’s a connection between depression and physical energy levels, but it’s usually a lot more subtle and less severe than what folks with other chronic illnesses deal with.) So in public life–at work, school, whatever–we’re stigmatized for acting differently because people don’t realize we’re ill, but then if we tell them we’re ill, they then stigmatize us for being a “problem,” because they don’t think mental illness is really real. They think it’s made up, or a willpower issue, or something. Either way we lose. And that’s leaving aside the people who just think it’s disgusting and scary; I’m talking about the people who try to be nice.

    Maybe I should say “I,” not “we.” I’m not used to talking about this stuff in a forum, sorry.

    The language used in the campaign is interesting. I would certainly say that I “suffer” from depression, although that’s not always how I feel like talking about it. It’s painful; it’s limiting. It hurts. But I’m not sure I like a well person telling me I’m suffering. I wish I could articulate why I feel like that, but I’m not getting the words.

  6. For me, I live with a mental health condition. Sure, there are parts of it that are awful – I could do with far fewer nights of being incapable of sleeping until I’ve confirmed the door is locked one more time, amongst other, far more dire, things – but this is how I live. And I don’t like my existence being defined as “suffering” by people who aren’t part of it.

  7. Oh Glenn, so close and yet so far…*snort*

    Seriously, you’ve got to wonder, was anyone with a mental illness part of planning this campaign? If not, 1) why not? and 2) did they run this past anyone who had a mental illness?

    Should my shirt say “depression”, or “righteous rage towards Bring Change 2 Mind”? BECAUSE I’VE GOT THAT TOO.

  8. I think in conjunction with the other shirts (sister, mom) this is a little fishy. (Well, okay, I find it troubling when people, especially women, identify primarily as “X’s wife” or “Z’s mom” but that’s a whole ‘nother thing right there.)

    But on its own, a shirt that said “bipolar” or “schizophrenic” . . . what first occurred to me is the value and power of being VISIBLE. We are everywhere, and because it’s an invisible thing, people don’t realize this. They say and do uncool things because they think they don’t know anyone who is that way, and thus their assumptions are never challenged and torn down. Also, it’s isolating to be diagnosed and then think to yourself “I don’t know any bipolar people who are at all functional,” as I did, and then find out you are wrong, because people you had known for years were bipolar and you didn’t know it. I’m not saying a shirt would have changed that, but I am saying that visibility, for me, is a worthy personal goal. If the only mentally ill people we can identify are the ones ill enough to have problems that make it way obvious, we never get the chance to observe the full spectrum.

    Part of what I do on my journal is write honestly about my experiences, because the visibility is helpful to others like me. I absolutely *would* wear a shirt that said “bipolar” on it, not because it’s the most important thing about me, but as a way of saying “Have you thought about the fact that I am actually wearing this word on the inside all the time? Now you know what a bipolar person looks like.” It’s not for everyone, being visible like that. It’s sooooo not for everyone, for one because not everyone is comfortable being visible, and that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to MAKE anyone wear such a thing. That would be horrible. Wearing it wouldn’t even be something I’d want to do all the time myself. But I WOULD do it, and I see the value in it — chiefly not in a group of like folks, but out in public randomly.

    So if the simple label fails for so many of the commenters here, what kind of language COULD we use, then, on a shirt, if we personally did wish to make ourselves more visible?

  9. Namaah, I think it saying HUMAN in a big heading and then a list of other traits under it, from lings like tall and brown hair to major depression, would get the message across way better? Like, everyone’s people, and we’re all made up of all of these different things, and no one of them defines us.
    .-= Shiyiya´s last blog ..Letter to a Hawaiian senator =-.

  10. I agree with Naamah. I don’t like the campaign that much, but I see where it was going with the labels. Not only does it make mental illness visable, I think the point was the opposite of what you (the OP) saw, that is, it’s goal was to define people with mental illness in terms of families/relationships/normalcy.

    That’s what I don’t like about it. America loves Teh Family and while they might not care about a person with bipolar disorder in general (or only have bad feelings towards that person), knowing that said person is a sister puts the (“dangerous”) world of mental illness in in the (“safe”) confines of family. Family stands in for “normal person” (because normal people get married, of course) as well as “protected” (because everyone with mental illness can be taken care of by their mom).

    I’m not in a long-term heterosexual relationship, and my mom doesn’t monitor/help me. Does this mean my bipolar disorder is extra scary?

  11. thanks for all the thoughtful comments, guys!

    i agree that the shirts could be empowering for some people and in that context i think they’re a great way for that person to raise awareness and be visible. i don’t think i would personally feel comfortable or safe doing that – and i feel like the campaign is telling me that i have to wear a shirt and label myself that way if i want stigma to be erased. that kind of public declaration can feel and/or be very risky for some people, and i felt the campaign was placing all of the risk on the shoulders of the people with mental disabilities. i’m not sure i can articulate it further than that (i’ve tried and erased a couple sentences that just weren’t coming together) – my response was very visceral and not the result of a considered analysis.

  12. Naamah – I was thinking something similar as I read this, that there might be some good in identifying oneself as having a mental illness as a way to be more visible, and that’s in line with what my personal kind of activism tends to be too – talk openly about it so people who aren’t familiar with it can learn and so people who are familiar with it know they’re not alone. But, yea, that’s not 24/7 and it’s not for everyone.

    I do agree with the objection of it just being the label of the illness. I am not “depression/ocd/ptsd”. I am “a person who has depression, ocd, and ptsd.” The shirts could easily have been designed to show that these are real people underneath the shirts who also, yes, do have mental illnesses.
    And, you know, maybe the “sister/mom/brother/etc.” shirts would be better as simply “supporter” or “loved one” to be more inclusive. Because you don’t have to be directly related to someone with a mental illness to care about people with mental illnesses. I would even argue that putting the familial labels on them implies that they ONLY care because they are related to someone and therefore that IS the only reason to care. Which is disturbing.

    Possibly, this was just not a very well thought out campaign all the way around? But yea, the general idea I can get behind. Needs much work, however.
    .-= Rosemary´s last blog ..Glee and Beer =-.

  13. Where I live we have a campaign called “See me” ( whose tagline is “See Me – I’m a person, not a label”. The two campaigns could almost be antitheses of each other. As to which one I’d prefer – well, to misquote The Prisoner, I am not a label, I am a free woman!

  14. I have very mixed feelings about this, and about two different aspects of it:
    1) The actual text of Close’s article. I think enough of it is good that it might be worth putting the “suffering” aspect in another light. Each individual ought to determine hir own attitude toward hir disability. For many people, this means that they do not “suffer” from their disabilities. I don’t suffer from PTSD or Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. I HAVE PTSD and Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. For others, though, that is their experience. I certainly do suffer from anorexia. Disabilities have layers; it’s possible to suffer from one and not another or even to suffer and not suffer depending on the day!

    It is absolutely possible that Close is just using ableist language when describing her family members as “suffering” from mental illness, but it’s also possible that that’s their experience of their illness. As much as we want to promote a positive narrative of disability, it should not come at the expense of silencing people with negative experiences. Yes, ideally this campaign would have (or even feature!) people who did not “suffer” from their mental illnesses, but if one takes the charitable view, then what Close is doing is still valid and important; she is not obligated to both increase visibility AND promote positive attitudes if that’s not her family’s experience.

    2) Intuitively, I agree with Naamah about the shirts: empowering for some, not for others. I can totally see how someone would feel like the pressure for awareness had to come from the PWD, based on this ad. What bothers me about them is the context in the ad with the “sister” and so on. I could go out wearing a shirt that says “PTSD” and that would get my idea across to a certain extent, but a shirt that says “sister” would not convey that someone is a family member and ally of someone with mental illness. While I could debate whether concept of the shirts is A Good Thing, the ad is definitely not.

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