It Won’t Happen To Me

What are we hiding from?

This past week I have been caught up in thinking about the stigma that exists with mental illness.  If you are a regular reader you will know this because I have mentioned it in my posts How We Treat Our Mentally Ill and It Has To Matter… Mental Health (Passions Profile Challenge #9).  It is likely though that I will keep on mentioning it because the more I read, the more I listen, the more I am disturbed.

Firstly I need to make a point of clarification.  In the first post I took a stand about how the Police and the Media treated someone who committed a crime and appeared to be mentally ill, as a result of a drug psychosis.  Some people pointed out to me that the man committed a crime.  And yes, I totally agree that he committed a crime.  That was never an issue for me and I apologise for not being clearer.  My issue was in how he was handled and how it was reported.

I got some negative feedback on this subject, not so much on here but on a news site where I made similar comments.  That doesn’t worry me and I expected it.  Actually my comments got classed as controversial rather than just regular, and I’m kind of pleased about that.  Many people voted to disagree with me and many made rather blatant comments that perhaps I deserved to be in the situation of the man’s victim (having his face bitten off).  The encouraging thing is though, that there were a few anonymous people who supported what I said, that this man was mentally ill and should have received treatment rather than fatal gun shots.

That’s encouraging because those that commented negatively were really cruel.  This man was a drug addict and apparently didn’t deserve to be classed, let alone treated, as human being.  It was also a big joke for many, and I’ve seen the story line of zombies and flesh eaters continue throughout week as people joke about this and other news stories.  Maybe I don’t have a good sense of humour.  I just don’t see anything funny when someone suffers.  There were at least two sufferers in this, the victim of the man and the man himself, not to mention their families.  Yet the public just carry on laughing.  This just becomes a joke on Facebook or some other social media site.

Mental illness is regularly a butt of people’s jokes and I suspect it is because it is the only way some people can handle it.  I think  people say to themselves “It won’t happen to me” and then carry on laughing and making jokes.  It’s much easier that way.  It keeps it at a safe distance.

I thought it wouldn’t happen to me.  I had no trouble in accepting that other people might have mental illness but I didn’t for one minute think it would be me next, as I wrote in my post Normal.  As I have written previously, as a child I came across many people with mental illnesses because of my father’s involvement with them. 

Why do we let him be called names?

And that was perfectly normal to me, until my family used to regularly drive past the local psychiatric hospital on the way home from a day at the beach.  We would drive past the high walls of the imposing, brick buildings and I was scared.  So much so that even though I was sitting in the backseat between my brothers I would want the car doors locked.  I thought the people in those buildings were crazy, dangerous and completely different from us.  At 10 years old I was wondering how would the staff of the hospital go to work every day knowing that they would be in danger (in my mind).  So even though I knew people with mental illness I couldn’t connect that with those inside the hospital.  And perhaps most importantly to this post, I thought they were different me.

Fast forward 36 years and I have often been one of those people, a patient in a psychiatric hospital.  Not that particular hospital, as it is now closed (and reopened as a university) but similar places.  I’m not so different after all.  And the thought that kids might want to feel safer by locking their car doors when passing me?  It makes me ashamed that I ever did it, but it also highlights for me what the people who encourage the stigma think of me.  I’m crazy, dangerous, completely different, not really human and perhaps better off shot dead.

I think there is a long road ahead to reduce the stigma attached to mental illness.  People need to realise somehow that psychiatric patients are (mostly) not dangerous, they are not different, and that it could very well happen to any of us.  Whether it’s me, my brother, my neighbour, the woman at work?  Any of us.  The thing is that we never think anything is going to happen to us, and that’s probably a good thing.  Otherwise we would be over-protective of ourselves and unwilling to take risks.  But when it becomes an attitude of arrogance, where we think it only happens to people who aren’t as ‘good’ as we are, then we have a problem.

Dare I say it, I’m not convinced any more that the ‘one in four people’ routine that comes out around mental health stigma is enough, simply because it’s too easy to think it will be the other three, and not me.  I think somehow it has to become more personal.  I know that’s a tough ask, but I think it will be necessary.  I think too that the judgement has to go.  Having a mental illness isn’t a sign of weakness or failure.  It just is.

That said, I’d love to hear what you think?  And what did you think of the mentally ill when you were a child?

An interesting point that surely relates to stigma too

“People with mental problems are our neighbors. They are members of our congregations, members of our families; they are everywhere in this country. If we ignore their cries for help, we will be continuing to participate in the anguish from which those cries for help come. A problem of this magnitude will not go away. Because it will not go away, and because of our spiritual commitments, we are compelled to take action.”

~Rosalynn Carter


25 thoughts on “It Won’t Happen To Me

  1. Claire

    i love Rosalyn Carter. she is one of my heroes. i didnt think that mental illness could happen to me either. i had worked with the mentally ill. and even with that experience i had no idea it could happen to me, too. they were a thing apart. they were messed up. i didnt belong in their category. it would never happen to me. surprise! it can and will happen to one in four people. that is a lot. if it isnt going to be you, it could be someone you love. i wish there were a way to convey that effectively to people. 🙂 blogs like yours help.

    1. Thanks. I’m sure that one day, if enough people keep saying it, the message will start to get through but I recognise it’s not an easy thing for people to admit to in the first place. So I think we have a way to go.

  2. I couldn’t agree with you more on everything you’ve said in this wonderful post, Cate.

    The treatment of the face-eating man in both the sensationistic media and the general public is both shameful and sickening. Yes, a horrific crime was commited and I have nothing but sympathy and concern for the poor homeless victim. But the “zombie” was, in fact, also a human being, one who clearly needed medical treatment for drug dependency, if not co-occuring mental illness. But that seems to be rarely addressed. In fact, I read an artcle today from a major newspaper that stigmatized the victim, questioning if his itinerant lifestyle meant he couldn’t be depended upon to take prescribed medications and get treatment regularly once he’s been stabilized, fully healed, and released. Sound familiar? To me, it smacked of the sort of judgmental, condescending, stigmatizing stereotypes that get leveled at the mentally ill community all the time. Where’s the empathy, people? Where’s plain old human decency? It’s outrageous and disheartening.

    I completely agree that people need to start relating to mental illness on a personal level, that fear needs to be addressed and put aside in favor of understanding that no one is immune to the effects of mental illness, but if we band together and develop a humane understanding, it can be a lot easier for all of us to live and cope in a world where mental illness is a very immediate and human reality. I’m not sure how we go about doing that, but I think the fact that we’re having these conversations right now is a good first step. Now to take over the world! 😉

    Thanks for another eloquent, thought-provoking post, Cate. You’ve really got my juices flowing now. I wanna run out and punch some stigma in the face. But oh — wait — that’ll make me look like a crazy person. 😉

    1. Ok in that case don’t punch it in the face, just kick it in the … LOL. BUt do it. I’m right behind you as we take over the world.

      You make a very good point that there seems to be a very big tendency to forget that people are human and deserve to be treated with compassion and empathy. And I’m inclined to think that the media are the worst for this, and unfortunately they have to power to stir up the masses (in the wrong way). To think once that I wanted to be a journalist. 😉

      Thanks for your comments Eileen. xx

  3. Thanks for taking on an important issue. When crime is involved people drop any of the comprehension they may have about mental illness. I don’t understand why people can’t conceive of rehabilitation. Just because the illness was connected to a crime does not mean it is any less treatable. If people can accept that the individual did not choose their illness why is it so hard to accept that they did not choose the crime?

    Great post and I expect to stumble on more as a follower.

    1. Hi Brett, and thanks for checking out my blog. I completely agree with you. The lack of compassion for human beings (regardless of crime they may have committed) makes me so mad. We may be but a drop in the bucket but I firmly believe that the more of us who speak out in even small ways, then slowly we can bring about change. That’s my hope anyway. 🙂

      1. I think we are a drop in the bucket but the views we offer are hopefully more like a drop of food colouring. With enough of us adding our voice, each drop slowly changes the colour of the entire bucket.

  4. nikkix2

    When I was a kid, the mentally ill, were never mentioned, it was kept “hush,hush”. And, now that i’ve been diagnosed it kinda ticks me off,,because it has run in my family for generations. If I would’ve known maybe I wouldn’t have had to struggle as long as I have!

    1. Thta’s really sad. I’m sure knowing would have not only given you information earlier but it would have been perhaps easier for you to accept it in yourself (if that makes sense). Thanks for your comment.

    1. That makes a lot of sense to me, even though my experiece has been different. What I mean is that I think I find it hard not to label myself because I’ve had that label for so long (as an adult).

  5. Well thought out post. I was at a meeting recently at a clubhouse for people with mental illnesses where I attend. (I am also the parent of a someone with a mental illness.) Anyway, we were screening a movie on schizophrenia, so a social worker from the local mental-health center was there. He happened to mention that over the years he has met nice people and mean people as we all have, but after these people became sick they were “nice people with a MI” or “still mean people with a MI.” The point was MI strikes anyone and everyone and is not the the sum total of our personality. If you were mean before, chances are you’ll still lean in that direction. Those with MI’s carry an extra burden, but are still subject to all the behaviors (both good and bad) of everyone else.

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  7. Such wonderful post! I was the same way as you before I was diagnosed, in that I never thought I’d be diagnosed with a mental illness. Even through all that I had been experiencing over the ten years prior to my diagnosis, I still never thought it was a mental illness. I didn’t let my mind go there, as it only had negative connotations with it. As a child, I remember getting scolded by my mom for making comments about people who were “crazy”. She told me it was wrong to do that, and we needed to have compassion for them. We did not have anyone in our family who was diagnosed with a mental illness… well, no one that we knew of. We actually did have people diagnosed, but they hid their diagnosis. But, as a young child, I learned that we do not make fun of people who are ill. However, that did not stop the fear of the illnesses themselves. If I was walking by someone who appeared “crazy” (at least in my child’s mind), then I avoided them at all cost. I would go out of my way to not walk near them. I didn’t make fun of them, or joke about the way he/she was acting. However, I didn’t want to have anything to do with being near them. It indeed scared me, and my mom was the same way. That’s where I learned it. She would go out of her way and I picked up on that fear. And, as I got old enough to create my own fear, based on what I had heard others say of the mentally ill, I only let my imagination run wild.

    As I got older, and headed into adulthood, I began to pay more attention to statistics about how many homeless (at least in the U.S.) are actually suffering from mental illness. I began to really understand what my mom was saying as a young child, and felt sadness for these people. But, what bothers me, is that what I felt was more pity. There’s a huge difference between compassion and pity, and I don’t want anyone to pity me. Now that I know what is wrong with me, I wonder if those who know about my illness are pitying me. I don’t want that at all. I want people to just understand that I’m suffering from something that I have no control over, but that I can try my best to control the symptoms with medication and therapy. My diagnosis, as well as its meds and therapy – as you state in your post – do not make me weak. Thanks to therapy, and a wonderful therapist, she has helped me to realize that. They should not make me a pity-worthy individual. Rather, what they should do, is show them what I am doing to be “strong” and how I’m working hard to do it every day.

    Something popped into my head while reading your post too. Not too long after my own diagnosis, I watched a documentary on HBO, called “Boy Interrupted”. It documents the lifelong struggles with Bipolar that a 15-year-old boy named Evan Perry had, until he committed suicide at that young age. He jumped from his bedroom window (the family lived in an apartment complex), and succumbed to his injuries. I have never forgotten about that documentary and even purchased it and have it on my book shelf, as it touched me so much. I don’t ever want to forget his name or story.

    He was diagnosed with Bipolar as a young child, and suffered so much throughout his life. Death was often a topic on his mind and he spoke of it, as well. And, at the age of 11, after a suicide attempt on the roof of his school, he was sent to a group home that specializes in helping children with mental illness. His first days there were difficult and he snuck out of his dorm window and ran off. While out, he broke into a man’s house while the man was home. He was caught and the police were called. The man pressed charges against the boy, and wanted him punished. Of course he needed to be punished to a degree, but what he needed more was help and understanding. Even upon hearing of Evan’s mental illness, the man had no compassion for him and still wanted him prosecuted, so he could be thrown into juvenile custody. Thankfully, that did not happen. But, he was forced to stay in that group home for quite some time, and he eventually thrived for that time. Unfortunately, it did not last.

    In regard to the man whose house Evan broke into, his lack of compassion and understanding for Evan is so reflective of how so many people view the mentally ill. They don’t even want to allow themselves to realize that medical help is needed more than punishment (or even death in the case of the man who chewed the other man’s face off). As was displayed by many of the comments that you said you received on the other website. It’s frustrating and disheartening.

    Thank you for another thought-provoking post, Cate! I think even we (the mentally ill) need to be reminded of these situations, otherwise we become content with just being pushed into the background and ignored… that is until we’re pushed forward into the spotlight, and displayed in a negative light.

    1. Yeah I think you’re right. We can easily become content and accept things as they are, often without regard for the judgements we might silently make about other mentally ill people. I think we need to be continually reminded not to accept this stuff.

      I also like the point you make about the difference between compassion and pity. It’s not something I had thought about before but you’re right and I suspect a lot of what we receive might be pity rather than the compassion we need. So now we just have to change that too. 🙂

  8. Excellent post NZ Cate! I am very alarmed to hear about the negative feedback concerning the guy who bit the other person’s face. I guess when people don’t understand something, they will react by condemning whatever it is or just make fun of the situation. If you think about it, it all boils down to a maturity issue! I am very proud of you NZ Cate! You are one brave lady!

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  10. Oy! I admit that I have such a problem in finding balance bewteen being able to laugh at myself, and my illness, and drawing a line at what is inappropriate. I want so much to not take myself too seriously, but often realise that if I were to take the titles bipolar, anxious, or borderline out of my attempt to be light hearted and replaced them with black or Chinese, I’d think I was going too far.

    It can be a hard balance to strike…but I think I will keep the “normies” joke! LOL

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