New: ON MENTAL ILLNESS: An Invisible Disability

By Jack Bragen
Friday December 14, 2012 - 05:29:00 PM

Most persons who have a mental illness are in treatment of some kind. This allows most of us to live with some amount of normality, and to do many of the things that so-called "normal" people do. Because of this, it can be hard for others to understand that we have a psychiatric condition when, for the most part, we are acting normally as well as appropriately. 

When someone uses the word, "schizophrenic" or "bipolar" it immediately conjures up images of a "crazy person" or a "psycho." However, most of the time persons with psychiatric disabilities are behaving quite normally. This seemingly normal behavior, which is unlike most people's perceptions of us, is a challenge to some non-afflicted people's comprehension. 

People who are seen on the street, who may be homeless and who may be behaving in uncouth ways are not representative of the whole population of persons with mental illness. 

The stereotypes concerning persons with mental illness are not usually accurate, and they are upsetting. People are entertained by movies that sensationalize mental illness and that portray us as freaks. 

Despite many people's misconceptions, you can't categorize a person as mentally ill or as not mentally ill by how they look. We do not necessarily exhibit any external characteristic that would indicate our illness. Some persons with mental illness (when in recovery) aren't fantastically dressed and groomed, and may seem to have sort of a dull edge. However, this applies to only some persons with mental illness and not all. (I have also seen psychiatrists who don't pay much attention to how they dress.) 

It is the deep desire of many persons with mental illness to perceive ourselves as normal, as capable, and as being just as worthy of self-respect as an ordinary man or woman of our age. When we are categorized as disabled by the mental health system, it generates anger and it can cause low self-esteem. 

People who are dealing with us, if honest, should acknowledge that in fact we are different, but should not assume that we are something less. In a work situation we may require reasonable accommodation of some kind, such as adjustments to reduce stress, more sick days and perhaps a lower quota of productivity. That type of adjustment acknowledges the reality of our condition, but it doesn't necessarily insult our intelligence. Acknowledging a difference is not the same thing as discrimination. 

I know a woman who is probably in her eighties and works as a cashier at a drug store. Her accommodation (for being mature, not mentally ill) is partly that she has a chair behind the register to sit on when tired. She also gets my help when negotiating a heavy bag. This does not negate her value as a human being; it only makes her work possible. (In most ways, this woman is a better worker than the other employees who are mostly in their twenties.) Accommodation of that kind, and in that light, is what I'm talking about-there is no judgment attached. 

Can people be accommodated for psychiatric disabilities without the baggage of being perceived as "special people"? What would it take to make mainstream people regard persons with mental illness as normal and essentially the same as them? 

Disabilities created by mental illness are often invisible, but perfectly real. We aren't freaks and we have the same right to dignity as anyone. Being the butt of people's jokes, viewing us through a stereotype, or perhaps the assumption that we aren't essentially the same as "normal" people, is an insult and it is hurtful.