Monday, August 18, 2008

Illness Stigmas

One time, I was involved with a job interview in which the interviewee was a cancer survivor. The young man was quite proud of his success at overcoming cancer, and felt that if he could beat cancer, he could do anything.

There are many other proud cancer survivors out there. Lance Armstrong comes to mind. He has used his fame to found the Lance Armstrong Foundation, which provides support to people affected by cancer.

Cancer survivors are a source of inspiration. Rarely do people with cancer get blamed for their illness. But the same could not be said for another type of debilitating disease: mental illness.

Like cancer, mental illness is simply a case of a physiological defect. It's a deficit or surplus in production of chemicals within the brain, not a character flaw. Too often I hear people talk about clinical depression (for example) as though it's something that can be overcome with positive thinking (or Jesus). Sometimes, perhaps, it can be, but more often than not, depression stems from a serotonin deficit in the brain, something that must be treated with medications.

When we lived in Illinois, there was a woman in town -- a well-educated professional with two young sons -- who fatally stabbed one of her sons and critically injured the other. She was suffering from mental illness, which drove her to commit these horrible acts of violence against her children.

If she had been of sound mind at that particular moment, I could almost guarantee that she never would have done such a thing. But she was not. She was tried and sentenced to several years in a mental hospital, and her rights to her surviving son terminated.

It seemed like a reasonable sentence to me, but there were others in the community who did not. How could a woman murder her child like that, they wondered? They would never dream of harming a hair on their child's head.

Like the critics of the sentence, I cannot imagine what was going through the woman's mind that day -- and I'm glad of that fact. I'm glad that I have not experienced such a horrible thing -- the need, the desire to kill anyone, not to mention to kill my beloved child. But, unlike the critics, I understand that it is a result of my good fortune that I have not had this experience. I'm not morally superior while she is morally depraved, I'm not blessed by God while she is being punished for her sins; I'm just lucky that the combination of my genes and my environment have not induced this experience in me.

Mentally ill people have these horrible thoughts and impulses -- even though they don't want to. They're not morally depraved; they're neurotransmitter-deprived (or oversaturated).

I'm sure that the woman was -- and is still -- being punished more than enough for her actions. After that horrible episode, she regained some sense of sanity, and felt remorse for the actions she had committed in her psychotic state. She will suffer the guilt of actions committed by her body but not by her sound mind, for the rest of her life.

Mental illness does not usually lead to such tragedy, though. Most of the time, it simply makes life more difficult for the person suffering from the illness, and their friends and families. Once an effective treatment is found, the daily maintenance activities aren't any more inconvenient than the treatments for other chronic illnesses such as asthma, high blood pressure, or diabetes. And it shouldn't be stigmatized any more than those illnesses.


lost clown said...


I recently went boom and while I didn't physically hurt anyone there was still some emotional fall out and I feel like crap about it. While I have been told by one of the people that I didn't drag him into anything-I know I did.

I'm terrified to try and enter the workforce. Yeah the government classifies me as having a disability (since I'm on SSI-D right now), but seriously-who's going to want to hire the person who has horrible PTSD related (i.e. unable to medicate for) anxiety attacks/is unable to come to work b/c of something that some people feel is just "in my head" or some other bs.


ScienceGirl said...

It is sad how many people do not get the help they need just because of the stigma, especially since in so many cases their quality of life could be drastically improved.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this. I really wish more people understood mental illness this way. Even I have a hard time distinguishing my own illness from a personality flaw. I'm glad that you recognize it for what it is.

ScienceGirl said...


acmegirl said...

Wow! Excellent post! I really agree with the analogy between mental illness with other chronic illnesses that have well established physical causes. But, I can remember when I was young hearing people with asthma called frail and made fun of. I only hope that the judgemental attitudes toward mental illness will change as much as I have seen the attitudes toward asthma change as people become more educated and have more experience with those who are succesfully treated.