If you asked me the number one reason why I loudly proclaim myself to be a schizophrenic, it’s because of the stigma. I really don’t want to be that public with my illness. Like all illnesses, the struggle is very personal. Unfortunately the struggle is always made worse by the fact that it is very difficult for a person to talk about their mental illness.
I’ll try and give you a better reference point. Many of us have stories about how cancer has affected our lives, through ourselves, a friend, a friend’s family or a relative. With a 2011 incident rate of 45% for men and 40% for women over a lifetime, it’s hard to find a person who doesn’t have a personal connection to that illness. We do talk about it. Lance Armstrong is a strong example of positive role model we associate with the fight against such a terrible illness. Though mental illness isn’t quite as prevalent, over their lifetime 20% of Canadians will be treated for such illnesses.
That’s still pretty common. Now ask yourself a question. Do you have conversations with colleagues, coworkers, friends, family and your other peers half as often about mental illness as you do about cancer? Do you have them at all?
It’s been my experience that people don’t like to talk about it. I never knew that my family had a history of mental illness until long after I was diagnosed. Mental illness is hard to talk about, both for “normies” and those of us who have it. There’s a sense of shame attached to it somehow. I use the phrase “couldn’t keep it together” to describe the attitude some have. But brain can be broken as easily as a bone and we don’t feel shame for the latter unless it involves a story that should have stayed in Vegas.
Indeed as a CMHA survey noted,
Almost half of Canadians, 46 per cent, think people use the term mental illness as an excuse for bad behaviour.
I note the word excuse. It’s not an excuse for millions of Canadians. It’s a reality. It certainly is for me. And I think a good example is Lance Armstrong. Let’s say he failed to win the Tour de France after surviving his battle with cancer instead of winning seven consecutive times. I think he’d still be a hero. His cancer would not be looked upon as an excuse if he had to withdraw from the competition.
I do want to be frank. I don’t think that most people automatically think the word excuse when I say “schizophrenic.” But it does lurk there, out of sight, seeping out its poison, making it harder for people to ask for help if they need it. I think many Canadians would be horrified if someone had used the words “excuse” and “cancer” together in the hypothetical scenario with Lance Armstrong. So why is it different?
I know people have issues with the violence. And I admit that there are violent schizophrenics. I am not one of them. Indeed, “the majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses.” Did you know that the notorious mobster John Gotti died of cancer? Yet we would regard holding suspicions of Lance Armstrong being violent because John Gotti also had cancer as… Well you get the picture.
Personally, I blame lazy writers. Or at least I think it is a big part of the problem. We like our stories. We like to have our villains as well as heroes. But with villainy comes some need for why they do things. Mental illness offers an easy explanation as to why someone committed an atrocious act in a TV crime show. Play a game sometimes. Watch a few crime shows back to back. See how often a criminal is presented as a “schizophrenic.” Then count how many times a mentally ill person is presented as, well, a person and not a plot device.
Maybe then you’ll see why I want to start this conversation.