A few years ago, a coworker died as a result of cancer. During her illness and treatment, there was an outpouring of help, including meals for the family. After her death, her closest coworkers formed a team that participated in the annual cancer fund raising walk, which took place overnight. Even after all these years, they continue to participate in the walk in honor of their coworker.
The stigma of cancer, which I recall from my childhood, has been destroyed. In addition to the help to family and the in memoriam fund raising, you can now be a cancer survivor, a decorated veteran of our war against cancer. However, such is not the case with mental illness.
When one of my family members had a psychotic episode and was diagnosed with a mental illness, I mentioned it at work and at church, as I had to take some days off to deal with the aftermath. There were no meals brought to our house. There were no fund raising events to raise money for research and cures. I did have a few people call me to the side, and in hushed tones, tell me how sorry they were for my family member, that they had a family member in a similar situation. While it was somewhat soothing to at least have acknowledgement of the problem, I was bothered that the hushed tones were back.
Mental illness is seen as shameful; we do not discuss it in polite society and we quickly avoid those who are mentally ill. We need to recognize that mental illness is a biological disease. Yes, someone with a mental illness can be challenging to be around, depending on the extent of the illness, but such a person is not to be shunned. We need research to find better medications and better treatments. We need psychiatrists and case workers and clinics and housing so that the mentally ill can live with dignity, instead of finding treatment only within the incarceration system, and then only when their untreated illness has grown to devastating levels. We need to be able to say, “My wife or brother or son is mentally ill” or even “I am mentally ill” and not be told that if we just worked harder, prayed harder or had more faith, we would be fine.
The financial costs of mental illness are enormous; the social costs are far greater. The stigma that we still attach to mental illness brings back the hushed tones and the ostracizing of a large and growing portion of our neighbors. It is time to stop the stigma so that we can reach out to the mentally ill and their families and make them a full part of our connected humanity.
Mark E. Conrad serves as Senior Warden at St. John’s, Lancaster. He is the Vice President of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) in Fairfield County.