One of the best parts of speaking at the Pacer Symposium was that I got to meet and hear two other wonderful speakers. Dr. David Golbloom gave a talk on the stigma of mental illness that gave me a lot to think about. Today I want to share the gist of it with you, particularly some of the questions he asked us to think about.
If the presentation gets archived I will post a link to it. It was worth hearing.
This man was so smart that he made the word erudite seem inadequate. Here are some of the points he made.
Physical illness makes heros
He asked us of an experiment where subjects were taken into a room and asked to leave their political correctness behind. During a timed interval they were asked to shout out as many words as possible to describe someone with a mental illness.
The results were predictable to him. Lunatic. Crazy. Sick. Twisted. Schizo. Nuts, etc.
When a similar group was asked to perform the same exercise describing a victim of cancer, the results were words like:
Brave. Courageous. Tough. Perservering.
Very interesting. It suggested that someone with a severe physical illness was someone to be admired,while someone with a mental illness or disordered was someone to be feared. Someone stigmatized.
Are you still you?
Dr. Goldbloom suggested that much of the stigmatization of those with mental illnesses is rooted in fear. He used this example:
“If your leg breaks, you are still you. But if your mind breaks…are you still you?”
I worked as a job coach for a year. I was horribly unqualified, just like all of the other workers there who were making $10 an hour. We were basically drivers for people with disabilities. I personally worked with people whose conditions ranged from severe cerebral palsy to extreme adult onset schizophrenia.
My job was to try to help them find jobs they could interview for, help them prep, take them to the interviews, and if they were able to land a job, to work with their supervisors to make reasonable accommodations and help them succeed.
I won’t lie. I was extremely unnerved by some of the conversations I had with the people with schizophrenia. Many of them were articulate and intelligent, and could describe their alternate realities to you in as much eloquence and detail as anyone can describe anything.
They just weren’t real, and I never knew exactly what part I was playing in their worlds. For instance, once I went to check on a client who had been doing quite well. I was told that he had bonded with me and looked forward to my visits. I had no idea if this was true, but it was nice to hear.
I walked in and said hi to him while he was on the job. He turned and swung a lunch tray at me with all the force he could. He screamed “You f***** my girlfriend!”
1) This was not true. I hadn’t.
2) He didn’t have a girlfriend, but on that morning, he was somewhere else in his mind, and I had wronged him grievously.
On that morning at least, from where I was standing, he was not the person I had worked with. From then on, uncertainty loomed behind every interaction we had. I could never quite feel that he wasn’t about to hit me. I never again felt like I knew what he was thinking.
It wasn’t his fault. That was the mind he had. It wasn’t my fault for being unsettled by it and not wanting to be attacked. I know that there is a balance. That there are tools to help professionals deal with that and to know the signs. We weren’t professionals.
Violence and mental illness
“If it bleeds, it leads.” If you follow the news, you probably believe this. Horrific, violent acts saturate the media. If you didn’t know any better, you might think that every single child gets kidnapped at least once, it is impossible to go on a date without getting kidnapped and assaulted, everyone’s next door neighbor is simply waiting for the right moment to visit in the night…
Dr. Goldbloom stated that CSI is the most-watched program in the world, between its current and syndicated episodes. “What does CSI teach us about people with mental illness? Monsters to be feared.”
I did not catch the study Dr. Goldbloom cited, but I wrote down the numbers.
“If you could snap your fingers and eliminate all violent crimes that were the result of a mental illness you would still have 96% of the crimes left to deal with in the United States and Canada. This is an incorrect starting point, but nobody seems to know that. Television and the news are not helping disabuse us of that notion.”
If you are interested in a more in-depth (and more humorous) look at what currently passes for the news cycle, I highly recommend Drew Curtis’s book It’s Not News, It’s Fark.
A few more thoughts
I can’t imagine how frustrating it must be to serve effectively as an advocate for those with mental illnesses. Saying it’s an uphill battle doesn’t really do it justice.
I would predict that in any given day at work at the public library, I deal with 20 people with a diagnosed mental illness. Most are homeless, most are willing to talk about it openly, and most feel that there is no help for them. Many have told me that they are aware that their behavior frightens people at times.
What a challenge on both sides. They can’t snap their fingers and reverse their conditions, and their advocates can’t simply go around and tell everyone not to be scared of behaviors that can actually be quite frightening.
I would love to hear thoughts or different perspectives on this, particularly if you, a loved one, or your profession are involved with mental illnesses.
Brains need strength training, just like bodies.