Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘education’

Understanding Mental Illness

My friend Martin Baker ( recently posted a series of prompts for mental health bloggers. Number 29 was: Can you ever really understand if you’ve not experienced mental ill health yourself? Here are my thoughts.

In general, I do believe that having a mental illness yourself is the best and perhaps the only way to truly understand the reality of mental illness – the daily struggles, the need for self-care, the loneliness, and the stigma.

I’ve noted before that my mother-in-law didn’t really understand the concept of mental illness. It was like the time when she saw some women on the Phil Donahue show who were talking about their hysterectomies and the pain and suffering they went through. “Those women are such liars,” she said. “I had it done and it wasn’t like that at all.” It’s a matter of assuming your own experience is true for the rest of the world as well, a common logical fallacy. (Later she came around to believing mental illness existed, at least. I attribute this to spending time with me and my husband and reading one of the books I wrote, Bipolar Me.)

Even my husband – who has lived with me for 40 years, sympathized greatly, and helped me unselfishly – didn’t really “get depression” until he got depression. It was a situational depression that deepened into clinical depression. He’s still on medication for it. I remember him saying that he felt miserable and despondent, and had for months. “Try doing it for years,” I said. “I couldn’t,” he replied.

With a person who doesn’t understand – or even believe in – mental illness, there’s not a lot you can do to change their mind. The images and stories they get from the news, movies, novels, and TV shows tell them that anyone with a mental illness is likely to be a serial killer or a crazed gunman, probably psychotic or at least delusional. Conversely, they can believe that any notorious evildoer must have been mentally ill and probably “off their meds” at the time the atrocity occurred.

We often say that education is the answer. Informing people about the reality of mental illness is supposed to raise their consciousness and help eradicate stigma. That’s all well and good, but getting accurate and informative materials into people’s hands is not that easy. Sure, there are websites, books, and blogs, but the general population simply doesn’t run across these on their own. We who deal with mental illness daily must point them to these resources. Even then, there’s no guarantee that they’ll read or interact with the resources. They have to be interested in and open to the topic.

Public awareness campaigns featuring movie stars and top athletes may help in getting the audience to believe in mental illness in others, and even if they have a mental disorder such as depression themselves. Whether these can counteract the inaccurate and insensitive portrayals of mental illness in the media is still, I think, an open question. Even commercials for various medications for psychiatric illnesses can help people understand a little bit more, though I still believe that many of these ads present a less-than-accurate picture of depression, for example, making it seem no worse than a hangover. And many of the ads promote telemedicine sites for those who have – or suspect they have – some sort of mental disorder. They are less useful for the totally uninformed.

Still, we keep trying to inform and educate. But are we shouting down a rabbit hole or into an echo chamber? Maybe seeing posts from Facebook friends who have mental disorders really does help. I know that some of my Facebook friends have said that my posts and blogs on bipolar disorder have helped them learn.

But in general, I’m pessimistic about people understanding mental illness until or unless they experience it for themselves or in their own families – and maybe not even then. There are those who deny that they have depression, for example, or who may suspect they have a psychiatric disorder but feel that getting help is “for the weak.”

Or maybe I’m just pessimistic today.

Nevertheless, I’ll go on writing this blog in the hope that it will make a difference to someone.

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The Answer to Bullying

“Being bullied is not a harmless rite of passage or an inevitable part of growing up; it has serious long-term consequences,” says Stephen Luntz in an article, “Study Finds Bullying Affects Mental Health More Than Child Abuse” [].

Well, duh.

But wait. Look at that title again. “Bullying Affects Mental Health More Than Child Abuse“?

Yes. That’s an accurate headline, not just clickbait.

“Our results showed those who were bullied were more likely to suffer from mental health problems than those who were maltreated,” says Professor Dieter Wolke of the University of Warwick in the article. “Being both bullied and maltreated also increased the risk of overall mental health problems, anxiety and depression.”

He adds, “It is important for schools, health services and other agencies to work together to reduce bullying and the adverse effects related to it.”

Again, duh. Easier said than done.

And how big is the problem? A CBS News poll reports that most Americans reported being bullied at some point while growing up Only 41 percent report never being bullied.

“Just” 10 percent said they were bullied “a lot.” That’s still a lot of children who are bullied a lot.

I know I was. And I’m willing to bet that many of you were too.

So what’s to be done?

Well, we know what doesn’t work.

Telling those who are bullied:
“They’re just joking.”
“Learn to take a little teasing.”
“You’re too sensitive.” (my personal favorite)
“Learn to fight back.”
“Get used to it.”
“Just ignore it.”
“What they say doesn’t matter.”
“Don’t let them see that they hurt you.”
“Laugh it off.”
“Handle it yourself.”
“Try to make friends with them.”
“Give them what they want and they’ll leave you alone.”
“Don’t give them what they want and they’ll stop.”
“Stay away from them.”
“Stand up to them.”
“Get your friends together when they’re around.”
“Tell your parents/teacher/principal.”
“Take karate lessons.”
“Avoid the second floor bathroom (or wherever).”
“Grow up.”

(If you have any other favorites, let us all know in the comments!)

Look again at that list. They are pieces of advice to the VICTIMS of bullying on HOW NOT TO BE BULLIED. What’s wrong with this picture?

Feminists and their allies have begun questioning the advice given to women on HOW NOT TO BE RAPED. Instead, they say, the focus should be on teaching men HOW NOT TO BE RAPISTS.

And apparently, this approach is having some success.

Of course, bullying is not rape; the analogy breaks down quickly. But both are about power and “the other” – asserting dominance over someone who is different.

In bullying, that difference can be real or merely perceived, and can be literally anything – weight, height, intelligence, socioeconomic level, race, ethnicity, popularity, clothing, sex, gender, hair color, disability, athletic prowess, speech, preference of superhero. The criteria for who is a victim seem completely arbitrary, because they are. The victim is the other, someone who is by definition different.

Is it fair, or even reasonable, to tell victims to alter whatever it is about themselves that makes them different? It can be soul-killing to have to pretend you are not smart, not poor, not gay, not Muslim. It can be impossible to pretend you’re not short, don’t have a disability, are good at sports. And why should victims have to, any more than women should never go out alone at night or never flirt?

We need to start teaching kids HOW NOT TO BE BULLIES, not how not to be bullied.

Some specifics, like this:
“If you think another kid is gay, ignore it.”
“If someone is not as popular as you, so what?”
“if a kid in your class dresses funny, don’t say anything.”
“If it’s not fun for everyone, stop.”

Or this:
“Don’t hit people because you don’t like the way they look.”
“Don’t joke about people who don’t enjoy it.”
“Don’t call people anything but what they want to be called.”
“If someone is unhappy, don’t make it worse.”

Or this:
“If someone is smarter or less smart than you, form a study group.”
“If someone has less money than you, do things that don’t cost money.”
“If someone is always dropping her books, help pick them up.”

I’m not an educator or a child psychologist – just a former smart, scrawny girl with weird hair and poor eyesight. In other words, bully-bait.

Maybe my ideas won’t work. But what we’re doing now sure doesn’t. That poll I mentioned earlier suggests that bullying is actually increasing, despite all the attention the topic is getting. Generalities like “All people deserve your respect” and “Celebrate differences” and “Be-kind-keep-your-hands-to-yourself-no-hazing-no-fighting-no-name-calling” aren’t getting the job done.

Bully culture is well and truly entrenched in our society. To change that, we need to change the culture – if for no other reason, to head off all those mental health problems waiting up ahead for bullied children.

Who’s with me?

Fun’s Fun – Until It Isn’t

When my husband, Dan, and I were dating, he would sometimes tickle me, or poke me, or make embarrassing jokes about bodily functions. And I would shut him down. “Stop that!” in the tone of voice that says, “I mean it and I’m angry.” If he persisted, I put my foot down even harder.

“You know what’s wrong with you?” he would say (and don’t you love sentences that start that way?). “You’ve forgotten how to have fun.”

I had to admit it was partly true. I had just come off a relationship in which I could set no boundaries. Rex would tickle me, for example, past the point of enjoyment until it was actually physically painful. I taught myself to shut down my tickle response (and who knows how many other responses along with it). I was depressed and I was damaged and I didn’t know what fun looked like anymore. But I knew that for me, tickling was not it, and that I had to clamp down on it or it might turn into pain.

A Facebook post brought this all back to me. Judi Miller, an awesome teacher of troubled teens, told of a time when a male student, “Johnny,” was teasing a girl, poking and tickling her and saying he wanted to handcuff her and tickle her till she screamed.

Judi objected. She explained, “Johnny, when you say to a woman who says ‘No’ to you that you’re going to restrain her with handcuffs and touch her without her permission until she screams, that sounds really rape-y to me.”

The boy protested that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and Judi took advantage of the teachable moment for a lesson on bodily autonomy: “That means you have a say in who touches you and how far you’re willing to go. In my family, if someone says ‘Stop tickling,’ we do, because consent is important to fun. If it’s all fun for you, and not for your partner, you aren’t listening to her needs.”

She added, “If you don’t respect her bodily autonomy when she says no tickling, or no touching, or to leave her alone, then will you respect her saying no when she doesn’t want to hug, or kiss, or get it on after a date? The pattern is the same. There’s the connection to rape.”

As with most teachers, she had no idea whether her message had an effect.

Until later that day, when a boy from a different class started an argument with his girlfriend, and grabbed her wrist, because she wouldn’t hug him.

Johnny was right there. “That ain’t cool. If she doesn’t want to hug right now, you got no call to get mad at her. You don’t own her ass, or her. She gets to decide if she feels like hugging you, kissing you, whatever. It’s called BODILY AUTONOMY, asshole. No wonder she don’t want to hug you if you won’t take NO for an answer!” Johnny said.

Judi thanked Johnny for listening to her and said she was proud of him. In fact, she later described this as her proudest moment of teaching all year.

Dan and I worked through our problem, I’m glad to say. I learned that I could say “no” and he learned not to push it. We both learned how to do things that were fun for both of us. Back then, I had never heard about “bodily autonomy.” We learned.

I wonder if Rex ever did.

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