Comparing the Perception of Mental Illness to Cancer
I wish I had cancer. That’s not what I mean exactly. I wouldn’t wish that horrible disease on anyone. What I wish, is that my disorder had the same respect as cancer. In 2010 I was diagnosed as being bipolar and introduced to the world of mental illness. I was also made painfully aware that I shouldn’t tell anyone and that what I had was to be kept in the shadows and not shouted from the rooftops.
Quick—right now—what month is Breast Cancer Awareness Month? What color is the ribbon? I bet 9 out of 10 people know that it’s October and the color is pink. You know what? That is great. However, did you know May is Mental Health awareness? Only if you or someone you love has a mental illness. If there is a ribbon for mental health awareness, I have no idea what the color is. Just in case that didn’t sink in, it’s more acceptable for men to talk about women’s breast for a month than it is for anyone talk about mental illness.
All of the hospitals I have visited have cancer “centers.” While the mental health or “Behavioral Services” area is just that, an area. These cancer centers are usually adorned with someone’s name proudly emblazoned across the building. They are proud to have donated money to such a worthy cause. You would probably have to go back 100 years to find a dead artist that would be willing to have their name associated with the mentally ill. The behavioral services are also sometimes lumped in with the same people that are detoxing. That’s right, if you are schizophrenic or bipolar you are housed with the same people that are addicted to drugs whether they have a mental illness or not. They need help too and I’m glad they are getting it, but when you go and get heart surgery are you sitting next to someone drying out? No, they would never dream of combining cardiology with the “crazy people”.
When researching cancer, one of the big statistics that National Cancer Institute keeps track of is mortality and understandable so. Dying sucks. But, you know what else sucks? Suicide. That’s how we track the mortality rate of mental illnesses. By the way, suicide is the 3rd leading cause of the death in the US among people aged 10-24. If someone dies of cancer we mourn openly. If someone commits suicide we don’t talk about it.
Have you ever noticed a sign in your neighborhood advertising a BBQ chicken sale to support Dave in his battle with (insert horrible disease here)? Communities rally together to support someone they might not even know. I think it’s wonderful and shows great compassion. However, I’ve never seen a banner in my neighborhood that said, “Hey, support Jeff. He suffers from severe depression and is unable to maintain a job.” “Stop being lazy and suck it up like everyone else,” would be most people’s response as they drove past my fictitious sign.
Lately, I’ve heard the mantra “Stop the Stigma,” which I fully support. However, it’s a gross misrepresentation of the problem. Pitbulls have a stigma. Used car salesmen have a stigma. What people with a mental illness have is a debilitating disease that is misunderstood to the rest of society in the same way that Greeks thought the Earth was the center of the universe. That’s not a stigma, that’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic facts. People, society, media and even my family don’t understand the basic facts. It’s like trying to explain what salt taste like without using the word “salty.”
Mental illness is a stigma, don’t get me wrong. I just wish there was a more accurate and severe phrase like, “Mark of shame that you can never speak of, but screams more about who you are than anything you will ever do.” You know something catchy like that.
My point is that cancer is horrible, but it gets the attention and funding it deserves. Mental illness is also horrible, but it is hidden, misunderstood and left only the dregs of support and usually only after someone has killed himself or herself. I have been struggling for over seven years with my own disorder, often alone. Even my wife, who spends every day with me doesn’t comprehend my struggles. Mental illness is such a sad state that I fantasize about being absurdly successful just so I can talk and advocate about my illness. That’s the level of disdain mental illness carries. One has to have celebrity status to be able to withstand the social prejudice that these disorders have. Until then, I will continue to fake a smile and pray in silence for those worse off that even myself.