When I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I was given a very mixed prognosis. Many of the staff at the psychiatric hospital I was in had cared for persons with severe mental illness for years. What they often saw was people who were essentially non-communicative, sometimes aggressive, often pacing through the halls with what they called the “Thorazine shuffle.” They told me I should prepare for a life where I could not return to ministry, get divorced, and, spend the rest of my life in-and-out of psych hospitals.
But when I saw my psychiatrist, he painted a very different image. He handed me a memoir that had just come out called, An Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. Jamison is a leading researcher of bipolar disorder and has the illness herself. This book expanded my vision of what God could do in my life despite the challenges of bipolar.
My life has unfolded likewise in a very mixed way, quite common for those who have bipolar. I did go back to full-time ministry and served another dozen years before my illness progressed to the point I needed to resign. I stayed married for 25 years before the stress became too much to bear. I have gone to the hospital for many crisis interventions, but my last admission was 10 years ago.
In addition to my mixed prognosis and my mixed experiences, I also have mixed feelings about how mental illness is both presented and perceived in the media.
On the one hand, I applaud efforts seeking to shatter stigma by sharing successful stories. There are many high-functioning persons who contend with mental health issues and when people likewise struggling hear them open up about it, they develop hope that they are not alone and they may be more inclined to ask for help.
I just ran across a great example of this in a story about Olympic champion Michael Phelps. (“I’m Extremely Thankful I Did Not Take My Life.”)
Phelps shares this:
“Really, after every Olympics I think I fell into a major state of depression,” said Phelps when asked to pinpoint when his trouble began. He noticed a pattern of emotion “that just wasn’t right” at “a certain time during every year,” around the beginning of October or November, he said. “I would say ’04 was probably the first depression spell I went through.”
On the one hand, presenting how someone with a mental illness, or mental health issues, manages to cope and even conquer these obstacles, is a wonderful way to inspire those of us who grow discouraged and want to give up when the weight of our mental illness bears down upon us.
But, such stories designed to break stigma can also have an unintended backlash. Not everyone with a mental illness is as bright as Jamison or as athletic as Phelps. Holding up heroes such as these can be inspiring, but it can also create a unrealistic, even crass perspective that if those of us with a mental illness are not attaining such lofty goals, we must not be trying. We must be lazy. We must just want attention.
My friend Eric Riddle and I recorded a pilot episode of our new podcast, “Revealing Voices.” Eric made an excellent point. “There are to be a mental health ‘spectrum’ that better depicts precisely what our struggles are rather than lumping us into one category.” I see a hint of this going on as we are beginning to distinguish “severe mental illness,” “mental health diagnosis,” and “mental health issues.” There is also a distinction between “situational,” and “chronic,” mental illness.
One trend within such organizations as National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) is that the focus has shifted from addressing severe and profound needs for “the least of these,” to pouring money into programs that attempt to combat stigma by “normalizing” mental illness and its affects. There is nothing normal about the proliferation of persons with mental illness floundering on the streets, in jails, and in prisons. It is nice when a person with a mental illness is exceptionally blessed to function, even to thrive, with support from families, the government, and private agencies. But what about the countless hordes of persons with mentally illness who have fallen through the cracks and have next to no support to live a quality life?
For every Michael Phelps, there are thousands upon thousands of inadequately cared for persons with mental illness who need our attention.
How can we best meet the needs of the broad spectrum of persons with mental illness? What can you do?