“At the heart of the argument about the mentally ill in this new social construction is the notion that many mental illnesses are not real phenomena. From the viewpoint, “illness” is merely a label applied to the people who commit blameworthy acts rather than a set of real and treatable medical conditions distinct from being simple bad behavior.”
Patricia E. Erickson & Steven K. Erickson
(Crime, Punishment, and Mental Illness)
What is mental illness? Is it a term, or a crutch phrase that people use to absolve themselves from taking responsibility for their actions when they behave in a way that is not conducive to social norms or when they commit a crime? Or, is mental illness an actual medical condition with a biological basis caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain?
When you think of someone with a mental illness do you think of them as being deranged, loony, disturbed, maladjusted, or insane? Someone who you can’t trust, that you wouldn’t want to leave your children with, have your children play with, or work alongside of daily?
Traditionally, people who suffer from mental illness have a powerful stigma surrounding them, primarily from a large faction of the society who believe that mental illness is a failure of personal culpability, as well as the difference in treatment of diseases of the mind in comparison to physical diseases. Only recently has there been a widespread movement to educate people on the biological factors of mental illness.
Just in the last month I have read research articles on developing blood tests for major depression, and growing evidence showing mood disorders as being glial disorders. According to Fikri Birey, a PHD student at Stoney Brooke College, glia cells in the brain are more abundant than neurons in the cortex and are critical to the functioning of neurons. Scientists have recently discovered that there has been a reduction in glial cells in post-mortem individuals who suffered from severe mood disorders and or schizophrenia. These types of discoveries I feel, are crucial in helping to erase the stigma of mental illness and preventing sufferers from being blamed for an illness they have no control over.
As a mother with a child who has suffered from autism and mental illness since he was five years old, I can personally attest to the fact that these diseases are not made up maladies to excuse one from taking personal responsibility. My son has agonized for years with intrusive thoughts, anxiety, the inability to process events in a way that is typical for the social setting he’s in, understanding social cues so that he is able to retain and maintain friendships, loneliness, isolation, suicidal thinking, impulse control, and explosive behavior.
Imagine for a moment how it feels as an adult to endure depression, extreme agitation, and shame. Close your eyes and think of how it feels to be exhausted and defeated by intrusive thoughts and anxiety. Think of what it would be like if you didn’t have the verbal ability to express how you felt both physically and emotionally. Picture how disheartening it would feel if you had few support systems, no friends, no one who could empathize with your daily feelings of hopelessness. Can you feel it?
Maybe you already know the anguish of those types of emotions, the frustration, the despair of living a nightmare you can’t seem to wake from, but now; imagine you are just a child or a teenager facing that same encumbrance and insurmountable sorrow. Can you envision how incredibly terrifying that would be? Now imagine you live in a society that fails to provide proper therapeutic supports and denies you hospital care because for some inexplainable reason, you, as a person with a mental illness, is less deserving of care and the right to health during an illness than any other person facing a medical crisis.
This is a reality that more than 43 million people in our country don’t have to imagine because they are living that exact reality. It’s a reality that many families are facing while they work to find adequate care for their children. The question I often ask myself is why? Why are we as a country who strives for greatness, continuing on this ludicrous course of discriminating against and castigating those with a mental illness? Where is our humanity? Why are some illnesses more deserving of respect and medical treatment than another?
Mental illness is a medical illness that does not discriminate based on cultural background, age, or socioeconomic standing and every one of us is at risk of developing a mental illness. Just as we are at risk for developing cancer or another serious medical condition, and it’s frightening, most of us don’t want to think about it. I know it’s not something I would like to mull over, but the fact is I have huge risk factors. There is a genetic component, and an environmental factor with the daily stress of raising a child with special needs. Someday I may suffer from PTSD, but sadly if I ever do, I’ll be shit out of luck because I wouldn’t be able to find a hospital bed where we live and I’d have to suffer without proper supports and services much the way my son and millions of others do.
Mental illness should not be a disease shrouded by stigma and at some point I hope those in power will come to the conclusion that we are indeed facing an epidemic of monumental proportion in this country. My son, and every other person with a mental illness deserves to be fought for and treated with the same decency and care that anyone facing a medical crisis is treated with, because that’s exactly what it is, a medical crisis and everyday scientists are making advancements in proving just that.
“Stigma’s power lies in silence. The silence that persists when discussion and action should be taking place. The silence one imposes on another for speaking up on a taboo subject, branding them with a label until they are rendered mute or preferably unheard.”
― M.B. Dallocchio
To learn more about glia cells and blood tests for chronic depression please click on these links.