Stigma and Mental Illness
Jared Loughner and the stigma and the reality of mental illness written by: Andrea Ball
Here we go again.
Since six people were killed and 13 were wounded at a Tucson, Ariz., grocery store on Jan. 8, the media have focused on the mental health of Jared Loughner, who is charged in the shootings. They've detailed his political rants on YouTube and MySpace. They've scrutinized his bizarre behavior in his college classes.
This always happens. Despite some insightful journalism about whether there is a connection between mental illness and violence, most stories on such incidents leave one distinct impression: Crazy people are coming to kill you.
Well, I have bipolar disorder, and I'm not coming to kill you. I promise.
"Coming out" like this feels weird. Everyone in my life knows I've struggled with mental health issues since my early 20s. My husband, my friends, my bosses at the Statesman — they've all supported me for years as I've worked to control my illness.
But writing it down for public consumption is scary. As I sit here, I'm overwhelmed with questions.
Will this admission make readers think less of me? Am I flushing away future career opportunities? Will I lose credibility with sources who will now worry I'm about to go off on CIA conspiracies and illegal wiretapping?
The bottom line is, I'm not doing this to garner sympathy or kudos. I'm doing it to add to the chorus of voices out there saying that people with mental illness can live healthy, productive lives. And the fact is, the vast majority of us are not out to kill you.
According to an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Public opinion surveys suggest that many people think mental illness and violence go hand in hand. A recent study found that 60 percent of Americans believe those with schizophrenia are violent, and that 32 percent believe the same of people with major depression. The research does not support these perceptions."
So what does the research say? A recent blog from The Wall Street Journal summed it up quite succinctly. "One national study ... showed that people with schizophrenia are relatively more likely to commit a violent act compared to people without a mental illness, though the percentages for both were low: 2.3 percent of people without a mental illness in the sample had committed a violent act in the last year vs. 7 percent of those with schizophrenia.
"But another, more recent study showed that people with schizophrenia are no more likely to commit violence than those without mental illness. That research did find an increased risk of violence among those with schizophrenia who are also using drugs or alcohol."
All this talk of violence surrounds people with the most severe mental illnesses. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 6 percent of the population — 1 in 17 people — suffers from a major psychiatric disorder, such as major depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia
But mental illness in general is far more pervasive. According to the institute, at least 25 percent of Americans suffer from some kind of psychiatric problem, which includes the less severe versions of depression or anxiety.
I don't know how long I've had bipolar disorder. Maybe it started my senior year of college, when I was so depressed I left my apartment only to go to classes. I barely showered. I think I changed my sheets once that year.
Maybe it was in my late 20s, when my moods would swing from elation to scorching anger or deep sadness. The possibility of having a spelling mistake in one of my newspaper articles would trigger massive anxiety. I barely slept.
A doctor finally persuaded me to try an antidepressant, and for me, the change was nothing short of miraculous. I stopped yelling. I stopped shaking with anxiety. I started sleeping.
That's how it went for eight years. My life wasn't perfect, but it was certainly better.
Then in late 2007, after a massive work project that left me physically exhausted and mentally drained, my generally stable life started to unravel.
First came the mild mania. I'd always been creative, but suddenly, I was on fire. Within the span of three months, I painted my living room and kitchen, wrote three screenplays, developed multiple blogs and directed a movie. I loved it.
Mania, if you don't already know it, is a good time.
Sadly, in my case, it comes with a price: depression. When the mania ended a few months later, I crashed.
Finally, in late 2008, after trying different antidepressants, my psychiatrist decided I didn't have depression.
"I think you might have bipolar disorder," he said.
"Oh, thank God," I answered.
Surprise registered on his face. "I don't think I've ever had that reaction before."
"No, I am so relieved," I said. "Now that we know what it is, we can fix it."
It wasn't that simple, of course. It took time to find the right combination of drugs, exercise and therapy that got my life back on track. And I still don't trust it. Every day, I wonder if I'm going to fall off the mental tight rope I'm walking.
But I like my life. I like myself. I am happy.
Mental illness isn't black or white. But when we hear about people like Loughner, people who go off the deep end and take innocent strangers with them, the world walks away with the mistaken impression that those of us with mental illness are lurking behind every corner, ready to launch into a murderous rampage at a second's notice.
We're not. We're regular people. And we're just trying to get by without fear or shame or the baggage of people like Jared Loughner.