Confronting the Stigma of Mental IllnessOut of nowhere, something like an ocean crashes on top of you, burying you in the deep. Your sudden impossible depth, the smothering weight, means your next gasp will be your last. Your brain screams of death’s imminence. While the clock at your bedside, or in your car, or on your workplace computer shows time ticking faithfully by, that initial terror doesn’t dissipate. It lasts for minutes, sometimes hours. You grasp at those around you, unable to form words.

Two of every 10 adults—45.6 million—experienced some form of mental illness in 2011…We are in the grips of an epidemic, yet the few times the nation has sought to have a dialogue on mental illness, it’s been in relation to one mass shooting or another.

After some time, you realize you may not be dying, but another equally disturbing thought emerges from the frenzy: You’re going crazy.

You’re in good company. Two of every 10 adults—45.6 million—experienced some form of mental illness in 2011, according to a survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

My first panic attack struck at 14. I had no words to describe it, no explanations, so I kept it to myself.

Depression and dysfunction followed. I dropped out of high school. A revolving door of therapists sought to credit my condition to an early trauma. I was prescribed Prozac in my late 20s and took it reluctantly, admonishments that I should just “suck it up” ringing in my head. Other medications followed, but what became a defining characteristic of my life—an unshakable hopelessness that has leached away years of my life—remained.

Until recently, the best that popular medicine could offer me was an ever-expanding cabinet of pills and, as a last resort, the intentional seizures of electroconvulsive therapy. Yet more than half of those who were prescribed the most popular medications will not achieve remission.

Despite hundreds of millions sunk into research and treatment, depression has become the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., the number of adults on disability due to mental illness climbed from 1.25 million in 1987 to 3.97 million in 2007.

Despite hundreds of millions sunk into research and treatment, depression has become the leading cause of disability worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. In the U.S., the number of adults on disability due to mental illness climbed from 1.25 million in 1987 to 3.97 million in 2007.

We are in the grips of an epidemic, yet the few times the nation has sought to have a dialogue on mental illness, it’s been in relation to one mass shooting or another. We talk about individual rights versus public risks. We rarely ask why so many are sick to begin with or what the unafflicted can do to help.

I had to venture too close to a bad end—one interrupted by a trip to the emergency room, outpatient care in a mental health treatment center, and participation in an experimental research trial at UT-Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas for nine weeks—to finally come out publicly as someone who suffers from mental illness.

I’ve met military personnel who kept suicidal ideations quiet for fear of being redlined, office workers terrified they would be fired if their secret were ever exposed, children struggling to convince friends that their illness does not mean they are possessed by spirits or lack faith in God.

The process has shown me how strong the stigma surrounding mental illness remains. I’ve met military personnel who kept suicidal ideations quiet for fear of being redlined, office workers terrified they would be fired if their secret were ever exposed, children struggling to convince friends that their illness does not mean they are possessed by spirits or lack faith in God.

For our genetic differences, difficulty processing trauma, or bodies’ reactions to environmental toxins, the mentally ill are picked on, talked down to, and shamed. Such prejudices compound the challenges for those in recovery and, sadly, prevent as many as half of those needing mental health assistance in this country from seeking it, according to the World Health Organization.

Ending the stigma of mental illness (or mental “intensity,” as my partner prefers to describe it) must be as much a national priority as investing in prevention and treatment. I encourage you to educate yourself on the subject and be a force standing up against the shame of silence and discrimination—for the millions already in recovery and the millions more who desperately need to know it’s safe to reach out for help.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Dallas Morning News. It is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

10 Comments

  • Trackback: Stigma Busters: Depression Time on Rewire Me | Depression Time
  • Michael Mardel
    Posted September 23, 2014 11:05 pm 0Likes

    It is real, it is debilitating yet I don’t advertise that I’m on Lithium. My hands shake but I don’t have Parkinson. It’s my medication. Some days I can’t hold a cup of coffee so I use a straw – no probs. Some days I can’t direct my mouse – the icons are too small to click on. I can’t write until the afternoon when my brain has had time to work out what I want to say. Once I get going, it’s fine for an hour or so, then I have to give it away but another 1,000 words have been eked out.
    My illness? is debilitating but I can do an hours’ work – typing is fine.

    • Greg Harman
      Posted October 24, 2014 1:37 pm 0Likes

      I am humbled you invested your energy into commenting here. I know a little bit about feeling betrayed by the brain and body. Wishing you all best and in solidarity hoping med management can relieve some of your distress.

  • Fran
    Posted October 4, 2014 6:16 pm 0Likes

    mental “intensity”. Your partner sounds lovely. What an amazing piece of writing. Thank you.

    • Greg Harman
      Posted October 24, 2014 1:39 pm 0Likes

      I do learn so much from them–mainly through their display of seeming infinite patience with me, but also in this sort of reordering of the broken mental-health landscape and harmful terminology. 🙂

  • Darlene Jackson
    Posted October 5, 2014 4:15 pm 0Likes

    This subject is so, so, so important. Thank you for sharing and informing the general population what NEEDS to be understood about depression. My precious 28 year old son suffered most all his life, starting at age 10 with various forms of depression. On 10/7 it will be the first anniversary of his death, from suicide.

    • Alicia Smith
      Posted October 6, 2014 4:36 pm 0Likes

      Dear Darlene,
      I am so sorry for the loss of your son. My heart aches for you. May the good memories that you have last you for this rest of this life. Also, I totally agree that the general population NEEDS to be informed and educated about depression and mental illness.

    • Greg Harman
      Posted October 24, 2014 1:41 pm 0Likes

      Wishing you all peace.

  • Alicia Smith
    Posted October 6, 2014 4:32 pm 0Likes

    Thank you so much for this article. My husband suffered silently with what I believe to be undiagnosed bi-polar disorder. He was a workaholic and hid it through that. He ended his life on 9/1/2010 at the age of 42. My mother suffered from bi-polar for most of her life. She was med managed, but had the terrible stigma of being labeled as mentally ill. My hope is that one day we will be able to talk freely about it and not be passed up for the promotion or looked upon as different.

  • Greg Harman
    Posted October 24, 2014 1:44 pm 0Likes

    I am sorry for your loss and grief. The time is now to end the stigma; it has to happen in every office, every block. Best.

Leave a comment

Social

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

You have successfully subscribed to our mail list.

Too many subscribe attempts for this email address

* required