A few hundred years ago, doctors couldn’t diagnose schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Society pointed to the mentally ill and called them witches or devils because they must have had some sort of evil inside of them.
Doctors can now diagnose a massive spectrum of both physical and mental disabilities. Because of scientific and medical practices, we can no longer say we don’t understand what’s wrong with someone who has a mental disability. But even if we don’t call them evil witches anymore, that doesn’t mean we don’t treat people with mental disabilities differently than a “normal” person.
Larry M. Lake, a writing professor at Messiah College in Grantham, Penn., used personal experience to expand on this topic in his article on Slate. When Lake’s wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, their mailbox stayed full each day with letters of condolence, their refrigerator stayed full for months with homemade casseroles from sympathetic friends, and she received countless offers for a ride to her radiation sessions or an ice cream on the way home from the hospital.
Almost 10 years later, their daughter was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after years of secret drug and alcohol abuse, sent to a psychiatric hospital, and admitted into years of rehab programs and treatment centers. Although she made immense progress as a result of these programs, the family’s mailbox never filled with condolence letters, their refrigerator never filled with homemade casseroles, and she was never offered a ride to and from her treatments.
People don’t choose to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder, just as they don’t choose to find a tumor in their body. Both physical and mental disorders cannot easily be controlled or cured; they usually require some sort of medication or rehabilitation, and they prevent the patient from living an easy or typical life. Mental disabilities are, after all, disabilities of the brain. Despite their similarities, why is there such a disparity within their treatment by society?
People fear what they don’t know. When they hear “mental disorder” or “psychiatrist,” they think of instability, craziness, and insane asylums. Physical illnesses and disabilities often seem uncontrollable to an extent, brought on by bad luck and unfortunate circumstances. But shouldn’t you be able to control your own thoughts, actions, and impulses? Shouldn’t people with depression be able to stop being sad? Shouldn’t the people with anxiety be able to calm themselves down?
It can be uncomfortable to be around someone with a condition you don’t understand. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, you don’t want to offend anyone, and you don’t want to trigger some sort of uncontrollable impulse, anxiety, or anger. People with physical disabilities can articulate what’s wrong, how it happened, and what it’s like. People with mental disabilities don’t always have this capability.
But it’s not just people’s perceptions, ignorance, or lack of comfort that dictate their reactions to mental disorders; the media is just as guilty of perpetuating the stigma as anyone else. Breast cancer foundations are largely publicized in a proactive and inspirational light and have been sponsored by endless companies, restaurants, and public events. When was the last 5K or restaurant fundraiser for PTSD or anorexia? When was the last time a commercial for depression wasn’t, well, depressing?
People with a physical disability are perceived as normal people who have had something tragic happen to them. People with a mental disorder were never considered “normal” in the first place.
So maybe you don’t know exactly what a person with a mental illness is going through, and maybe their situation even makes you uncomfortable. They may not be able to explain it, and they may even be afraid to ask for help sometimes. But this doesn’t mean that they should have to be followed around by negative assumptions for their entire lives simply because of the stereotypes that society has put in place. Rather, it should be our job, as the people who come into their lives, to put forth an actual effort to understand their condition and, most importantly, to stop perpetuating the unfair stigma.