Bipolar 2 From Inside and Out

Posts tagged ‘stigma’

The Appropriate Committee

 

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Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

When I was a teenager, my life was spent resenting the Appropriate Committee. I always ran afoul of them.

It seemed there was some nebulous group, invisibly judging us and deciding whether what we did, or wore, or how we acted was appropriate or not.

Part of the Appropriate Committee was, of course, the adult world. Teenagers were supposed to be polite and respectful and not talk or play music too loudly. To do otherwise would be inappropriate.

The social milieu was also part of the Appropriate Committee. How we monitored one another to make sure our pants weren’t too short, or that we didn’t wear ankle socks, or that we didn’t stay in the Girl Scouts past Brownies. The punishment was derision.

Of course being bipolar didn’t help. Both adult and junior versions of the Appropriate Committee took note of my mood swings – my loud, inappropriate laughter; my extreme, inappropriate crying; my extended, inappropriate isolation.

I tried to defy the Appropriate Committee. I laughed at them, thought they were stupid, and vowed not to let them run my life. They did anyway, of course. They were all-powerful and I had not yet gained the wherewithal not to care. It was like a pervasive, invasive form of bullying: Everything I did or said was wrong. The rules changed capriciously. I was punished with disapproval, mocking, and the wrong kind of laughter.

And they broke me. At times I tried desperately to fit in, to live up to expectations, to suppress my differences. At other times, when the effort became simply too much, I let my natural weirdness float to the surface and looked for the few other like-minded individuals that could tolerate that. Depression set in and, rarely, hypomania. I still dressed “wrong.” I still laughed at the wrong things, and too loudly. I still isolated and wept.

I thought that when I grew to adulthood, I would no longer be subject to the censure of the Appropriate Committee, Of course, that was completely delusional. I learned that the Appropriate Committee for Adults was a powerful force. It is particularly insidious in the business world, where it judges not just your appearance, but even seemingly minor matters such as where and how you eat lunch (with the “cool kids,” of course) and how you spend your breaks (cigarettes OK, crossword puzzles not). There’s still the problem of being laughed at in meetings and needing to go into the restroom to cry.

I finally realized that the Appropriate Committee exists in part to perpetuate stigma. So many of the behaviors of people with mental illness defy societal norms. It’s the Committee that insists we fit in, no matter what we’re feeling. It’s the reason that neurodivergent people are so reluctant to admit their differences in public and try their best to “play through the pain,” something that isn’t good for them, or for athletes either, really.

I’ve had enough of the Appropriate Committee over the years. Now that I’m properly diagnosed and medicated and relatively stable, I could undoubtedly fit in better than at any time previously in my life. But I dress how I like, even if it’s pajamas. I play my music as loud as I want and laugh or cry along with it if I feel like it. I embrace my weirdness, my differences, and seek out like-minded weird friends who are also living in defiance of the Committee.

Maybe the Appropriate Committee is needed for some places and times and people, like theater audiences or church services. Maybe. But for the mentally ill the Committee is hurtful, and stigmatizing, and unrealistic. We can strive to overcome our differences and sometimes we need to. But sometimes it’s better just to embrace weirdness, differentness, and our membership in the group of the neurodivergent.

And when I despair, I remind myself of songwriter Steve Goodman’s lyric: “I may not be normal, but nobody is.” And I let it blast.

What Kids Should Learn About Mental Health

The stigma and the misinformation surrounding mental illness are staggering.

How many adults believe that depression is “just being sad”? That the weather can be “bipolar”? That you can call yourself OCD because you’re a little too organized? That suicide threats are never acted on? That mentally ill people are dangerous? That prayer, or sunshine, or positive thinking will cure all mental disorders?

We can’t do much about educating and informing the adult population that all those beliefs are false. But we can avoid raising another generation that buys in to these misconceptions – if we start now with mental health education in schools.

Whenever someone proposes this idea, there are common objections. You want kindergartners to learn about schizophrenia. You’ll have impressionable kids thinking they have every disorder you teach about. Discussing suicide will give teens ideas.

Again, those are misconceptions. Mental health education in schools could look like this:

In kindergarten and grades 1-2, part of the health curriculum should be a unit about understanding emotions and how to deal with them. This is already being done when teachers tell kids to “use your words” or “use your indoor voice.” But more could be done in the area of teaching children how they can keep from letting anger, sadness, frustration, and other emotions cause them difficulties. Yes, this may involve techniques that resemble meditation and yes, these may be controversial, but the outcomes will be beneficial.

I also think that young children ought to be taught about autism, though it’s not strictly speaking a mental illness. They will certainly meet autistic children in their classes at this age. Helping them understand the condition at their age level will, one can hope, lead to more inclusion and less bullying of kids who are “different.”

Older elementary children can learn about mental illness in their science or health classes. This should be a unit that covers the basic facts: that mental illness is like physical illness in some ways, that treatment is available, that mental or emotional disorders will affect one in four Americans in their lifetimes, and that mentally ill persons are not generally dangerous.

Middle schoolers can be taught some more specifics: the names and symptoms of some of the most common disorders, the kinds of treatments available, famous people who have succeeded in spite of mental disorders and ordinary people who live fulfilling lives despite them. Speakers from local mental health centers or the school guidance counselor would be helpful.

The topics of self-harm and suicide should be brought up at the middle school level. It is sad but true that children in the middle school age range are affected by both – if not directly, by knowing a classmate who is. And suicide is the third leading cause of death for children ages 10-14. Learning the facts may help students who need help find it before it is too late.

In high school, the focus can shift to human psychology; more detail about serious psychological conditions; and the possibility of careers in mental health treatment, nursing, or advocacy. Topics of self-harm and suicide should be covered in greater detail, with discussions of how suicide affects the families and loved ones of those who die by suicide, how to recognize possible signs that a person is thinking about suicide or self-harm, and what does and doesn’t work when a person shows those signs.

The details of mental health education in schools still need to be worked out. These suggestions come from my experience as a person with bipolar disorder, who began showing symptoms while I was a child. Organizations such as NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and NIMH (National Institute of Mental Health) provide resources that can help in understanding the need for mental health education among school-aged children.

Understanding mental health is as important for schoolchildren as understanding physical health. Why should one get all the attention and the other virtually none? Mental health education that begins early can help children and their families in ways that will resonate far into the future.

Most adults have little to no understanding of the realities of mental illness. It doesn’t have to be the same for the next generation.

This is a post I published almost exactly a year ago on my other blog, janetcobur.wordpress.com. I thought I would share it here as well, and have more to say about it next week.

Talking to Ourselves

people woman relaxation girl

Photo by Public Domain Pictures on Pexels.com

Recently on Facebook I asked how many of my friends knew the meaning of the semicolon – other than as a mark of punctuation. About two-thirds of those who responded did. The rest either didn’t or had some vague idea but no real knowledge. But I’m pretty vocal about mental health issues and a fair number of my friends have similar problems and difficulties, so that two-thirds figure is likely not representative of the population at large.

Yet I see increasing numbers of t-shirts, bracelets, and other paraphernalia adorned with semicolons and sometimes colorful butterflies or the word “warriors.” But nowhere does it say what the semicolon stands for. For those of you who don’t know, the semicolon marks that place in a sentence where a writer could have stopped, but chose to go on. As such, it has become a symbol for suicide prevention and mental health awareness.

I have a semicolon tattoo myself. I don’t regret getting it. It reminds me, as the saying goes, that my story isn’t over. But when I got it, I also hoped it would be a tool for education – that I could explain to those who saw it and asked what the symbol meant.

Unfortunately, no one has asked.

I’d hate to think that the semicolon has become like a secret handshake that identifies members of our tribe to one another, but leaves out the rest of the world. As stigma-fighting symbols go, it doesn’t seem terribly effective.

The political conversation has become so fraught that no one talks to anyone who doesn’t believe in the same things. And I’m afraid that, like them, we’re largely talking to ourselves.

Self-talk is important – definitely something we should pay attention to and work on improving. But if we really want to fight stigma, we need to talk to other people about it.

I see a fair number of stigma-fighting memes and discussions, but unfortunately, most of them take place in mental health support groups, where the message is not as much needed as in the larger world outside our band of the mentally ill.

Of course, there are organizations such as NAMI, Bipolar Awareness – Stop the Stigma, and Stigma Fighters that dedicate effort to reducing stigma. And they are doing a good, necessary thing.

But what about the rest of us? What can we do to break out of our shells and involve the rest of the world in our cause?

One thing is to question other people’s assumptions when we see or hear them. When you read a post that calls the weather bipolar, answer it. Explain why that’s not a good comparison – that it trivializes a very real problem that millions of people face every day. And when someone assumes that a mass shooter or other terrorist must be mentally ill (or “off his meds”), remind them that those with mental illness are more often the victims of violence that they are the perpetrators of it.

Will people get the message, or will they just dismiss you as “politically correct” or a “social justice warrior”? Personally, I can think of worse names to be called, and many of us have been called them. But just as “retarded” and “gay” are no longer acceptable as synonyms for “weird” or “stupid,” we should try our best to make “crazy” and “mental” and “psycho” and that annoying little twirl of the finger by the temple no longer acceptable as shorthand for behavior that one doesn’t understand. (I still haven’t figured out how “dumb” and “lame,” both ableist language, have managed to skate by.)

What I’m saying is that to fight stigma we need to engage with the world outside. We need to explain why certain uses of language are hurtful and what the truth is about the many people who are affected by mental illness.

I’ve had to smack a few friends on the nose with a rolled-up newspaper when they get it wrong and I try to put my two cents into other discussions that are portraying the mentally ill insensitively. I think about what I’m going to say and even practice it before I speak or press send. (Sounding well-informed and reasonable is the way I want to express my message.) I post my blog entries to “public” as well as to friends and support groups. Sometimes I even talk to my family about stigma.

As a group, we need to do a whole lot better at not hiding from stigma but confronting it wherever we see it. We can live with stigma or we can fight it.

The Compliant Patient

My mother was not a compliant patient. She would have side effects from medication and just stop taking them: The meds gave her sores in her mouth or nauseated her.  And that’s valid. We’ve all had medications that we couldn’t tolerate because of the side effects. But Mom stopped taking them without telling her doctor. Once she went to the emergency room, where they had a list of the meds she was supposedly still on and I had to tell intake, “No, she stopped taking that one. And that one too, I think.” (She was not mentally ill, but that’s where I’m going with this.)

There is only one psychotropic medication I know of (though there may be others by now that I haven’t heard about), where the potential side effects are so horrible – potentially lethal – that patients are advised to stop taking them immediately and get medical help right away.  The side effect is called Stevens-Johnson Syndrome and it is a potentially fatal rash.  I wrote about it a few years ago, (https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-1g)

Other than that one instance, psychotropic medications should never be discontinued unless you have consulted your physician. You never know what withdrawal symptoms lie in wait for you, but they’re bound to be unpleasant, even if they don’t cause you to relapse, which could easily happen. Withdrawal from any drug is not fun; it’s to be avoided.

Nonetheless, I read posts in support groups all the time which say that people have decided by themselves to stop taking a medication, or even all their medications on their own. I have friends who have taken their treatment into their own hands this way.

There are several reasons they sometimes give for giving up medications. One is that the meds aren’t working. What they really mean is that the meds aren’t working yet. Many psychotropics don’t show positive effects until they have built up in your bloodstream, which can easily take four to six weeks. Expecting results in a day or two is unreasonable.

Others stop taking their meds because they “feel better” and think they no longer need the pills. This is just ridiculous. The meds are the reason that you feel better. Your psychiatric condition does not just go away, like the flu, when you feel better. Your disorder may soon come roaring back (or creeping back). And the thing is, when you restart a medication, it sometimes no longer works as effectively. Then you have to start all over with a new prescription and have another four to six weeks of symptoms while you wait to find out if it works or doesn’t.

Still other people simply don’t like taking medications.  This I don’t understand.  People take meds for flu and infections and such conditions and never seem to resent them. Maybe it’s the idea that you could well be – will likely be – on psychotropics for the rest of your life. But lots of people have meds they need for life – insulin, cholesterol meds, anti-inflammatories, asthma meds, thyroid meds, and others. People don’t quit taking those just because they don’t like to take pills or injections.

I think the real reason people don’t like to take their psychiatric meds is that they’re psychiatric meds. There is still massive stigma around the subject of mental illness. Taking medication for a mental illness means admitting you have one, which some people are reluctant to do.

Or they may be giving in to “pill-shaming.” There are plenty of people, perhaps in your own family – and certainly across the Internet – who will tell you that all you need is self-love or affirmations or sunshine or exercise or vitamins or meditation or willpower to banish your mental illness. Funny how they never tell people that sunshine will cure their broken leg or that exercise will cure their breast cancer.

I hesitate to say that I love my psychotropics, but in a way I do. They have brought me out of states of mind that were harmful to me. They have made it possible for me to function and create and communicate. They probably have saved my life.

Occasionally I let my psychiatrist know that I may need a change in dosage or that one of meds is no longer working. I’ve even reviewed with him whether there are any meds I could quit taking (there aren’t at the moment). But I keep taking them faithfully, every day, morning and night.

I need the psychotropics. So I am a compliant patient.

Mental Illness and Gun Violence

photo by Thomas Hawk

There’s been a lot of talk lately that not allowing the mentally ill to own guns would curb the trend of gun violence in the U.S. There are just a few things wrong with that theory.

Are background checks the answer? They aren’t. Such checks at certified gun dealers screen out only the very few who have been hospitalized for mental illness – involuntarily committed, that is, not just referred for a 72-hour hold for observation or self-referred. That’s only a very small portion of those with mental illnesses. Most people with mental disorders are never hospitalized and some never receive any diagnosis or treatment from a psychiatrist, psychologist, or another counselor, which means that background checks would never turn them up. And there are loopholes in many states’ versions of background checks that, for example, allow private sales of guns without them.

To take this to the next level of absurdity, it would be a severe breach of confidentiality if therapists had to report every client to a database somewhere, just in case, and would lead to fewer people being treated for mental health issues, for fear of being put on a registry that might be used for any purpose eventually, even employment. Gun owners don’t want to be on a nebulous registry “somewhere,” and neither do the mentally ill.

Can psychiatrists and other counselors report to the authorities clients they fear may become violent? Again, laws differ from state to state. Usually, the question comes up only when a client makes specific threats against a specific person or a government official. The therapist must make a judgment about whether the client is a danger to self and others, which could result in a 72-hour hold, and may of course be correct or incorrect. A client with generalized anger issues is probably not mandated to be reported.

And to whom and for what purpose would the person be reported? To the police, when no crime has been committed? Is a therapist’s report of a client’s report of feeling angry enough to shoot “someone” sufficient to justify a search warrant of the person’s house for a legally owned firearm?

Are mentally ill people more likely to be violent than other people? No. In fact, mentally ill people are much more likely to be the victims of violence than they are to be perpetrators. But no matter how many times we say that, few listen or believe it. Some mentally ill people turn violence – and guns –against themselves. Some are killed by police officers with no training in handling confrontations with differently abled people, including the mentally disordered.

Not only are mentally ill people more likely to be accused of violence, violent people are more likely to be accused of being mentally ill. That’s practically the first thing anyone says after a mass shooting – “Oh, he must be crazy” (or on psychotropic medications). Of course, with one in four adults being likely to experience some form of mental distress in their lifetimes, it is possible that a shooter is one of those people.

But newscasters and politicians and people on the street are, by and large, not psychiatrists or psychologists. They are no more able to diagnose mental illness than burger-flippers, dairy farmers, lawyers, or business executives. Not that that stops them. Mental diagnoses are flung about indiscriminately nowadays, from people who call themselves OCD because they straighten pictures to psychiatrists who claim to diagnose public figures without having spoken to them once, much less having developed a therapeutic relationship with them.

But can’t potential violence be predicted? No. It can’t. The prison system can’t do it, or there wouldn’t be so many parolees and probationers and those who have served their time who go right back to crime and violence. Mandatory sentencing laws and the political climate have reduced the problem in some areas, but there are still plenty of cases in which the system fails. At trials and parole hearings and sentencing hearings, there is always someone – doctor or lawyer or family member – to say that the offender will not offend again.

But the only known predictor of violence is past violence. That’s why some people think it’s more sensible to restrict the gun ownership rights of domestic abusers rather than someone mentally ill who has no record of violence.

Can’t mentally ill people who’ve proven to be violent be required not to own guns? Theoretically yes, but we know how well it works to tell people on probation who have no record of mental illness that they can’t own guns, drink liquor, or associate with known criminals. The probation system is too understaffed to enforce these requirements already. Who would be willing – or should have the responsibility – to check up on everyone, even the small proportion of the mentally ill who have been involuntarily committed or convicted and then released, and make sure they don’t acquire any guns? If the parole and probation people can’t handle the caseload they already have, why would we think that mental health professionals have any more time, capacity, training, or know-how to do it?

Would banning guns prevent gun violence by the mentally ill? In a word, no. There are already too many guns in circulation in this country for that to be possible, and those guns are too easy to get. And again, there would still be the problems of determining who is mentally ill, by whose definition, and how such a gun ban could be enforced.

So, I hear you asking, you’ve told us all the things that won’t work. Is there anything that will?

Not if you think that the problem of gun violence and the problem of treating the mentally ill overlap. Gun violence is one topic and the mental health system is another. There is a lot that can be said about fixing one or the other, but nothing that would solve both at once.

Not that a lot is being done now, unless you count blaming, finger-pointing, and spreading stigma.

 

For more discussion on the topic, see http://www.amhca.org/blogs/joel-miller/2017/10/03/gun-violence-and-mental-illnessmyths-and-evidence-based-facts from the American Mental Health Counselors Association.

Do I Disclose or Don’t I?

As I’ve mentioned before (even on my other blog https://wp.me/p4e9wS-zY), I’m running low on money and clients in my freelancing business. Therefore, I’ve taken up searching job ads online for part-time, work-from-home gigs. (So far, Indeed is the only service that has presented me with reasonable options. I sometimes apply for as many as three a day.)

It’s filling out the applications that has me stumped. Oh, I’ve got a fine resume – one on Indeed and another file I can send to jobs not listed with Indeed. I can write a decent cover letter. If there are editing or writing tests, I can handle them too. I have way more education and experience than I need, but I explain in the cover letter that part-time, contract, or freelance work is what I really want at this time in my life.

Then come the other questions that many ask.

Am I a veteran? No.

Am I a U.S. citizen or do I have the necessary documents to work in the U.S.? Yes.

Is English my first language? Yes.

Am I male or female? Yes.

What race do I identify with? Yes.

(Those aren’t really yes/no questions and are usually marked as optional, but I answer them anyway.)

Then comes the real stumper. Am I disabled? Well, that depends.

Most of the application forms state that they abide by EEOC regulations. Some of them even have a handy list of what are considered disabling conditions – and bipolar is one.

So. Do I take them at their word and believe that they do abide by EEOC regulations, in which case I can reveal my bipolar condition without penalty. In fact, if the company is trying to prove to someone that they are abiding by those regulations, the answer is probably yes, I should.

But we all know that such questions, while well-meaning on the surface, may actually be used to screen out disabled candidates. So perhaps I should answer no.

The deal with the regulations is that employers must offer “reasonable accommodations” to let disabled employees do their jobs, unless the accommodations for that condition are not feasible because of expense or other reasons.

So, as a person with bipolar disorder, what actual accommodations would I need?

The main ones I would need are the ability to work remotely, from home, and to have flex time. Those cost an employer nothing, usually.

And those are precisely the kinds of jobs I am applying for – work-remotely jobs in which you can make your own hours, or at least partially.

So when it comes to “The Question,” I have been answering “yes.” For the purposes of work, I am at least partially disabled by my bipolar condition. I cannot work full time. I have trouble working in a bustling office with lots of people around. I need flex-time to work around my symptoms. (I can still meet deadlines, though.)

Funny, but the forms don’t have spaces or yes/no questions on those subjects.

I have considered the idea that I am doing this all wrong. That I should not disclose my bipolar disorder until I have the job (and for those who don’t ask the question, that’s what I’ll have to do). That after I have the job is when I should discuss accommodations.

But dammit, all evidence to the contrary, I am a cock-eyed optimist. Those EEOC rules are there for a reason and I am that reason. I know that when most employers think “disability,” they think “wheelchair” or “impaired hearing.” But there it is, listed right among the possible disabling conditions – bipolar.

So far I’ve gotten a few form rejection letters and mostly a resounding silence. And in the meantime I’ve been scrambling for other clients and other assignments.

But I hope the day will come when just one of my potential employers means what it says about disabilities.

The Question I Hate the Most

There are many things you shouldn’t say to a bipolar person: Cheer up. Smile. What have you got to worry about? We all have mood swings. Calm down. You’re overreacting. You don’t look depressed.

Each of these remarks contains a hidden assumption, from simple – you can choose your moods; to dismissive – your anxiety is not as severe (or as important) as mine; to possible gaslighting (see https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-pm, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-C2, https://wp.me/p4e9Hv-Cu).

I’ve gotten all of those and more. Once I revealed my disorder to a coworker and she’d ask me, “How are you?” with a concerned look several times a day, taking my emotional temperature. But the question I hate most is a simple one.

Are you off your meds?

Let’s unpack this, shall we?

First, the underlying message is that, to the speaker, you are acting in a strange, inappropriate, frightening, incomprehensible, or otherwise “off” manner.

The second assumption is that you must be on medication in order to appear “normal” at times.

Third, that since you do not appear “normal” to the speaker, the only explanation is that you must not be medicated at the moment.

Fourth, that the speaker has the right to give you advice on how medicated you need to be in order to appear “normal.”

And, finally, that “meds” are the answer to all your problems. If you want to fit into society you must be on your guard at all times and medicate until you are acceptable to them.

There is a slightly less offensive version of the question: Have you taken your meds today?

This might be marginally acceptable from a loved one, who knows that you take medication for your disorder and also knows that you are sometimes forgetful.

But really. Most psychotropic medications build up in a person’s system over time and leave the body over a long time as well. Missing a single dose is not likely to have an appreciable effect on a person’s moods or actions.

There are some anti-anxiety medications that have short-term effects, and a bipolar person might have forgotten a dose or two.

But unless the speaker is the bipolar person’s caregiver, official or unofficial, it’s still rather parental and demeaning – suggesting that we aren’t competent to handle something as vital as our own medications.

Of course, sometimes it may be necessary to help a loved one remember to take medication, whether that person is bipolar or not. On a vacation, for instance, when one’s normal routine is disrupted, a gentle reminder may not be amiss. When one has just started treatment and the routine is still unfamiliar. Or if the person actually is a child.

You wouldn’t ask an adult with the flu “Have you taken your antibiotics today?” You wouldn’t say to a blind person “Now, don’t go out without your service dog.” Most people, most of the time, are deemed competent to know their needs and take care of those needs themselves.

But bipolar disorder and other psychiatric conditions, being largely “invisible illnesses,” seem to invite meddling. Everyone else knows what’s best for us, from a different drug to herbal medicine to a walk in the park to prayer.

They know a little bit about the disorders, perhaps, largely through television and celebrities. But they don’t know your particular version of the disorder (bipolar 1 or 2, rapid cycling, dysthymia, hypomania, anxiety, etc.)

So if I snap at you, or seem anxious, or don’t want to go out, don’t assume. I have regular “normal” moods too, even when I’m on medication. Sometimes I get annoyed if my husband has lost his cell phone for the third time this month. Sometimes I feel sad if my picnic is rained out. Not every mood is pathological.

So don’t assume you know what’s going on inside my head. Unless I ask for help, refrain from putting in your oar.

And don’t ask me, “Are you off your meds?” It’s an insult, not a question.

Are Political Extremists Mentally Ill?

Yes.

Well, some of them are. Given that one in four of Americans experiences a mental or emotional disorder at some time during their lives, 25% of any given group either are, have been, or will be affected by mental problems. Politicians. Girl Scout leaders. Chefs. Whoever.

Of late, though, it seems that political extremists – and politicians, of course – are being singled out for accusations of mental illness. And as for terrorists, they are in common understanding all mentally ill, so anyone you label as a terrorist is automatically insane. But we’re far from agreeing who is and is not a terrorist. (Antifa? Greenpeace? The NRA? The DAR?)

Admittedly, some of the extremists’ actions and statements seem “crazy,” but let’s stick to the more technically correct “mentally ill.”

Except it isn’t technically correct in most cases.

A lot of people seem paranoid these days. Everyone on the “other” side is out to get them, destroy America, or at least scare the pants off us. Conspiracy theories abound. And nearly all of them are crazy. (I wrote about this a short while ago: http://wp.me/p4e9wS-AH).

But “paranoid” is a clinical term in psychology, and it has a specific meaning: Paranoid Personality Disorder is a psychiatric condition, manifested by, among other things, “generally unfounded beliefs, as well as … habits of blame and distrust, [which] might interfere with their ability to form close relationships,” as WebMD says.

Those traits your political or social opponents may have, but most of them don’t also:

  • Read hidden meanings in the innocent remarks or casual looks of others
  • Perceive attacks on their character that are not apparent to others; they generally react with anger and are quick to retaliate
  • Have recurrent suspicions, without reason, that their spouses or lovers are being unfaithful

Diagnosis at a distance is dangerous, as well as bogus. The fact is that none of us (except perhaps psychiatrists) can diagnose a person as paranoid or any other variety of mentally ill without having met the person and performing detailed interviews and tests (I’ve written about this too: http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-6F).

This is also true of public figures. We can say that Donald Trump, to choose an example not entirely at random, has narcissistic traits; or is a narcissist in the garden-variety, non-technical meaning of the word; but we cannot say that he has Narcissistic Personality Disorder, an actual clinical diagnosis. We may think he’s crazy, but we can’t say whether he’s mentally ill.

Public readiness to label people, both acquaintances and public figures, with loose pseudo-psychiatric terms raises a number of problems, particularly stigma.

Labeling is a convenient way to dismiss a person who disagrees with you without listening to what he or she has to say, or considering the possible validity of an argument or even a statement of fact. If we apply a label, we make an assumption about a person that may or may not be true.

Stigma comes with the label mentally ill. People with diagnosed mental disorders are too often assumed to be violent, out-of-control, homicidal (or suicidal) maniacs – and therefore not worth listening to. In fact, many people with mental illnesses have no impairment in their cognitive function. It profoundly devalues them to dismiss them from political and social topics of conversation.

So, bottom line. “Those” people may be crazies, may act crazy, talk crazy, believe crazy things, but it is not accurate or helpful to call them crazies. Neither is it helpful to label someone who has never been diagnosed or has never been open about a diagnosis as mentally ill.

I just think that how we talk about people affects how we treat them. And that matters.

Discrimination: Mental Illness and Disability

A while back I wrote a post called “Another Word for Stigma” (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-oz), which was about the new-to-me term “sanism” and how it set up a dichotomy between the sane and the insane. While sanism may have been intended to reframe the discussion about mental health issues, I said, “We already know that stigma exists surrounding mental illness. We don’t really need the word ‘sanism’ to redefine it. Or to pit us against one another.”

When applied to mental illness, “ableism” is another word that subtly reinforces stigma. It implies that, unlike the neurotypical population, those of us with mental disorders are differently abled, mentally challenged, or – dare I say it – disabled.

Many of us – including me – have applied for disability and many – including me – have been turned down. Despite that, many of us live with varying levels of ability and disability, which are nearly impossible to see and therefore to prove.

When I applied for disability, I was in the depths of what would once have been called a nervous breakdown. I had mental deficits, emotional instability, trouble performing the skills of daily life, inability to hold a job – certainly at the level that I formerly had, or possibly not at all. My thoughts were disordered. My life was disordered. I got by only with the help of a caregiver – my husband. If that’s not at least partial disability, I don’t know what is.

By the time my claim was denied and my disability lawyer was prepping me for a hearing, however, I was, if not well, at least better. I had found part-time work that I could do at home, which provided as much income as disability would have. At his suggestion, I dropped my claim. Perhaps I shouldn’t have, because the lack of medical benefits has been a constant difficulty.

So, am I disabled? I would have to say, partly. I still cannot hold a full-time job – certainly not without accommodations – and my caregiver (still my husband) has to help me with many of the tasks of daily living.

The notion of requiring accommodations leads us to the subject of discrimination. Employers are required by federal law to provide “reasonable accommodations” to persons with disabilities, according to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for conditions including “a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities,” and also to “a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment. The ADA does not specifically name all of the impairments that are covered.”

“Reasonable accommodations” are not defined for mental disabilities, but examples of accommodations for other conditions include modifying work schedules, as well as leave flexibility and unpaid leave. But just try telling a prospective employer (as you are entitled to do) that you will need flexible hours to accommodate appointments, panic attacks, or other phenomena; or asking someone you work for to give you unpaid leave for a hospitalization. I think you know the result as well as I do.

One problem is that these forms of discrimination – which is what they are – are damnably hard to prove, as onerous and unlikely as being classified disabled in the first place. Yet the protections against these forms of discrimination are defined by law. But how many of us have the wherewithal to challenge them, prove our cases, and get by while waiting for the results of a lawsuit?

Even the act of asking for an accommodation opens us to yet another instance of stigma, and the outcome depends on the individual knowledge and understanding of an employer, when it should follow the law. We approach employers and prospective employers hat in hand, asking for – but not expecting – to get the treatment that is legally, rightfully ours.

In these days of rampant discrimination against people of any number of races, religions, national or ethnic origins, sexual orientations, and disabling conditions, our voices may not be the first to be heard. But we, the neurodivergent, the mentally ill, the emotionally disabled, the psychiatric patients, and our caregivers and loved ones deserve to be free from the effects of ableism, discrimination, and stigma.

Let’s speak up, keep educating about our issues, and support each other in banishing stigma, ending discrimination, and putting ableists on notice that we will not shut up until our rights are acknowledged.

 

Another Word for Stigma

Stigma concept.Recently I was reading an article online and came across a word I had never encountered before: sanism.

I don’t like it.

Oh, I realize that it’s meant to go along with all the other “isms” – words that point out how the world decides who is worthy of respect, then campaigns for the rights/recognition/understanding of the disrespected. There are lots of “isms,” some familiar by now, and others that just never quite made it.

racism

sexism

nationalism

feminism

elitism

ethnocentrism

ableism

lookism (This one didn’t catch on. It means that pretty people are advantaged.)

colorism (Not quite the same as racism, it refers to the idea that lighter shades of brown skin are preferable to dark ones.)

Not all of these terms are equally adequate. Sexism, for example, refers to the divide between male and female, and implies (though does not call out) heterosexism in particular. It ignores the experience of people with other kinds of gender expression – genderfluid, pansexual, and trans, for example. It probably should be “cis-sexism,” but then everyone would spend an hour explaining that when they tried to use it.

Ableism is another term that has problems. In its basic form, it contrasts the able-bodied against the disabled, or rather points out that the rights and even the humanity of the disabled are discounted. I bet some of you are wincing at the phrase “the disabled.” Times change and terms change. Right now the preferred term is “person with disabilities,” though we have been through other versions – “differently abled,” “physically challenged,” etc.

The general rule in these situations is to call people what they prefer to be called. But how do you know which term that is? Negro, Black, black, non-white, colored person, person of color, and probably a few I’m missing have had their day. And if you use Black, do you also have to use White? Many people do not understand the word Caucasian anymore, and certainly can’t explain why it means the same as white. Nothing you can say will satisfy everyone. Perhaps the best solution is simply to call everyone “Chuck,” or “Emily,” or “Mariko,” or whatever.

So. Back to sanism. My first problem is how to pronounce it. San-ism? Sane-ism? And if the latter, shouldn’t it be spelled saneism? Do we need a hyphen (sane-ism) to keep it from being mistaken for an unfamiliar religion?

But the real problem goes deeper than that. Sanism implies that there are two categories: sane and insane. If you’re not one, you’re the other (and discriminated against, but let’s put that aside for now).

Personally, I have a mental illness (bipolar 2), but I don’t think most people would classify me as insane. And there are many other people with OCD, PTSD, phobias, anxiety disorders, etc., who have difficulties because of them but are by no stretch of the imagination insane. Do we go back to the days when anyone with a neurosis was sane and anyone with a psychosis was insane? Does anyone still divide the world up that way, or has the DSM caught up with reality?

What, then, do we call ourselves? Non-sane? Not-sane? Mentally ill? Mentally challenged? Mentally unhealthy? Neurodivergent? Emotionally disordered? Nothing seems to encompass all of us. Nothing seems to work. But the “ism” suffix implies lining up two groups to make it easier to talk about the differences between them. It doesn’t always work perfectly – racism can be black/white, black/Asian, Hispanic/Anglo, etc. – and you sometimes have to define exactly what you mean.

Admittedly, the sane (able-minded? neurotypical?) have automatic, inherent advantages over whatever-we-decide-to-call-ourselves. Housing, jobs, even service in restaurants are weighted in favor of people with no psychiatric/psychological label or diagnosis.

But wait! We already have a word for that – stigmatized. Sanism sets up the contrast between those who consider themselves “normal” and those that the normal consider “abnormal.” In other words, stigmatized.

We already know that stigma exists surrounding mental illness. We don’t really need the word “sanism” to redefine it. Or to pit us against one another.

We have mental or emotional disorders. We are discriminated against – hated, feared, shunted aside, diminished, discounted, blamed, or avoided – because of that.

That’s stigma.

That’s what we have to fight.

Not “sanism.”

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