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.