December 1, 2009
Pat Deegan calls herself a psychiatric survivor. She is by her own reckoning a consumer and ex-patient. She is a lesbian and mother, a Phd. and professor. Pat writes that she was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager, in a turbulent period in which identity was fluid and stigma was a way of life.
Also evolving was Pat’s mental illness, then approaching full blossom. Pat remembers when she was in school and says, “I thought everybody was looking at me. I was paranoid.” She takes the challenge a step further. “Could I sit n a class without freaking out?” Pat thought they would just kick her out of school. “I carried a tape recorder so I could record classes, go home and listen later when I felt safe.” Pat had to deal with paranoid thoughts she was having everyday.
“I would hear voices. There is no way around it.” Pat elaborated. “These were distressing voices. I heard voices. It is how I am. I used to think getting well means no more big vulnerabilities, no giant issues to deal with.” The layers of stigma are complex. They speak to the ignorance of an unkind society. Beyond others, the danger of stigma is that it becomes its own disease and can poison the way we feel about ourselves.
“Society’s messages are embedded in culture, from music to Hollywood spectaculars. We are surrounded by messages of fitting in. Culture struggles with difference, Ann adds. “We are different, broken in the eyes of so many, unable to make choices.” Pat argues that those messages begin to seep in and define how we feel about ourselves. “We internalize these views and begin to hate ourselves. So how do I learn to love myself when we have been devalued and marginalized?”
Pat Deegan says she has learned to accept herself. My trauma history is a gift, and I am a better person for it.” The challenge for us is to open our minds and care. When I wrote Strong at the Broken Places, a book about living with chronic illnesses, my decision to include a mental illness was based on the startling statistic that one in five Americans lives with symptoms of a mental illness.
That choice was intuitive and bloodless. I did not care. The mentally ill fell well-outside my comfort zone. I knew little about conditions I found frightening and regarded those affected as outside he mainstream. I had grown up making fun of these people. That was a piece of backyard culture. I used the word, crazy, not always silently, which spoke volumes, loud and clear, about my own thoughtless discrimination.
The word for brutal behavior toward mental illness still is stigma. Stigma was soft in my mind, though in reality, hard and hurtful. This was an attitude steeped in ignorance.. A marker of all I did not know and how little progress we have made characterizing mental illnesses as a serious chronic condition, no different from MS, certain cancers, and whatever.
Unkind attitudes are the least of the offense of stigma. Employment and opportunity, housing rights and simple inclusion into society are areas of particular cruelty. Acceptance. Ignorance flows into communities, through schools and churches and across back fences.
When I visited the old psychiatric hospital at Milledgeville, Georgia, where more than twenty-five thousand patients (prisoners, if you will, or inmates) are buried anonymously, finally, I got it. My mind opened, so did my heart. Larry Fricks, who was part of the movement to restore abandoned graves, speaks openly about time spent in psychiatric institutions and jails and what it was like to be forced into the back of a police car with no control over his destination.
This had become part of his identity what he saw in the mirror. “People thought my mind, too, was broken, and I could not be trusted.” To the world, Larry was his bipolar disorder. Nothing more. Larry does not use the word, stigma. Putting the word out there only increases the stigma. He finds the term discrimination more appropriate, anyway.
When Clifford Beers, who lived with bipolar disorder his whole life attended Yale at the turn of the twentieth century, he vowed to fight discrimination against the mentally ill in the open. Later, iron shackles that had harnessed people like Beers to institution walls were melted to form the bell that is the symbol of Mental Health America, an off-shoot of an organization Beers fathered so long ago.
“Cast from the shackles which bound them” the citation reads,,” this Bell shall ring out for the mentally ill and victory over Mental Illness.”