Mental illnesses are masked—and that mask creates stigma and misunderstanding.
They are treatable, biologically based medical illnesses of the brain. They are different than diabetes or hypertension, in that you can't take a blood test or your blood pressure to see what your brain chemistry is doing. You are diagnosed by behaviors, which are the symptoms of the illness; when untreated or not properly treated, these behaviors can be bizarre, so many people see a person with mental illness as damaged goods, not to be trusted or depended upon. You see people on the street corner muttering to themselves and unbathed, or you may read about a mentally ill person in the paper who commits a crime.
Mental illness can strike anyone, such as an executive (Ted Turner), a favorite actor (Carrie Fisher), a television journalist (Jane Pauley) or even a president (Abraham Lincoln). According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), more than one in four adults 18 and older suffers from a mental disorder in any given year. Of those people, one in 17 has a serious mental illness such as depression, bipolar or anxiety disorders, or schizophrenia.
I have been diagnosed with bipolar-affective disorder for 21 years and have been living with it for much longer. I have feared homelessness, embarrassed myself, lost a career, alienated family and friends, and questioned my existence. It has changed my path in life. Like so many others, I have gone off my medications and paid the price. Finding the correct medications was a process of trial and error. Four major things have been instrumental in my recovery, in this order: never giving up hope; the support of friends, family and psychiatric providers; education about the illness; and medications.
My hope was based on knowing that it was an illness and could be treated; however, it could not be cured. Support came from people who helped me realize, while I was in the abyss of depression, that I was not worthless; I deserved to live, and sometimes others took steps to see that I didn't commit suicide. Education helps me realize the extreme highs (mania) are a mood that cannot be maintained, no matter how intoxicating the effects. It is strange when you think of it: Bipolar illness is the only illness where when you feel too good, you should see your psychiatrist. This is where medication comes in, to control the highs. In my case, the highs are connected to the lows. The other term for bipolar illness is manic depressive illness, which means that not only is depression a part of the illness; mania is, too. In our society, all that most individuals with mental illness want is a sense of community, where there is no prejudice or stigma.
Mental illness has great emotional and financial cost. According to the World Health Organization, the World Bank and Harvard University in the "Global Burden of Disease" study, the effects of mental disease have been underestimated: Mental illness, including suicide, accounts for 15 percent of the burden of diseases. In ages 15 to 44, it is the leading cause of disability in the United States and Canada, according to NIMH—even ahead of cancer.
The battle is being fought to unmask these illnesses by organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness Southern Arizona (www.namisa.org), with "support, education and advocacy" for 26 years in Tucson, and by support groups run by the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Tucson (www.dbsatucson.com), which let you know "you are not alone."
It is time to unmask mental illnesses. NAMI and DBSA are holding a presentation on Thursday, Oct. 7, at University Medical Center, 1501 N. Campbell Ave., in the Duval Auditorium, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. This free event will allow people to ask doctors questions and cover the effects of mental illness from childhood to adulthood. This will take place during Mental Health Awareness Week, which runs through Oct. 9. NAMI Southern Arizona is also holding an Unmasking Mental Illness Dinner and Silent Auction on Saturday, Oct. 9, at the Doubletree Hotel, 445 N. Alvernon Way. Check www.namsia.org for more information on this and other activities.