I remember the day, several years ago, when a co-worker I didn’t know very well told me that Zoloft saved her life. It came as a shock. I thought that she was, well, crazy, that she must have been way off the deep end to have needed that kind of help, let alone to bring it up in conversation like that.
Attitudes like this are fostered by a society that until recently just didn’t talk about such things unless to ridicule or pity the freaks afflicted with such problems. Even I, as an educated and compassionate person, shared in such thinking to some degree. Is it any wonder, then, that when I started taking antidepressants I was loath to tell anyone? What would people think? Would it ruin my chances of getting a job?
The gay community has long had the "closet" as a metaphor of secrecy and shame. In recent years, more and more people have had the courage to "come out of the closet." I propose a parallel metaphor for another group that has too long, and too often, felt the need for secrecy and shame. Yes, folks, it’s time to come out of the medicine cabinet.
Part of me is hesitant to draw an analogy between the stigma of homosexuality and the stigma of mental illness. After all, within my lifetime, homosexuality was still officially classified as a mental illness by the psychiatric profession. I would never say that gayness is a disease, and I’m disgusted by the "ex-gay" movement that seeks to cure sodomites of their sinful ways. That said, there are relevant parallels. Both sexuality and mental health can color and pervade all facets of our lives, and in both cases, little good can come of people denying the truth about themselves or the people they love. Both issues need to be dealt with honestly and openly for people to have healthy emotional lives and positive relationships.
Another big topic also shows the power of openness. "Cancer" used to be a word that many people were afraid to speak aloud. If anything, it was to be whispered, or cut to "C," as though the disease were a dog or child who knew words but didn’t know how to spell, and would spin out of control unless one discreetly referred to C-A-N-D-Y or a W-A-L-K. People responded to the "C word" with a mixture of shame and magical thinking, as if merely to talk about the disease would encourage its spread, or even its transmission to others. Cancer was like Beetlejuice – say it too many times and it would appear in your life, with no way to get rid of it. Cancer is still scary, and still takes too many lives, but thanks to advances in medical technology – and, unfortunately, the appearance of deadlier diseases – cancer is now a problem to be dealt with, attacked, talked about, and even laughed at.
Because topics like homosexuality and cancer were not openly discussed, there was an emphasis on the negative consequences and the exceptional nature of those affected. You often didn’t know that someone had cancer until it killed them, and people often weren’t known to be gay unless they died of AIDS or their sexuality was revealed as part of a legal scandal. Even the few public figures who flaunted their sexuality, merely underlined the exceptionality and otherness of people with the disease. As more people came out of the closet, it started a virtuous, as opposed to a vicious, cycle. The more people came out, the less stigma there was, and as the stigma receded, more people worked up the courage to come out. Of course, gays are still the victims of discrimination and ignorance, but now gays and the people who love them can openly engage the critics and bigots rather than fearing guilt by association. As a society, we have come to see that gays and lesbians are not just flamboyant societal outsiders or tragic figures wasting away on deathbeds as a result of their own behavior. They are friends, loved ones, teachers, family members, professionals, working men and women. Hell, some of them are even downright boring! Because some people were brave enough to speak openly about their sexual identities, it has become easier for everyone to understand each other and live honestly.
The time is right for people suffering from depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder, attention-deficit disorder and other mental health issues to come out of the medicine cabinet. In the last 10 years, very successful movies, memoirs, television shows and even children’s books have treated mental illness openly, respectfully, compassionately, and even hilariously. Jack Nicholson’s poignant and funny performance in As Good as it Gets, for example, raised awareness of OCD and even inspired many people to seek treatment so they could take control of a condition that had so long controlled them.
It has been said that fresh air and sunlight are the best disinfectants. In 1990, Congress designated the first week in October as Mental Illness Awareness Week. People struggling with mental illness have the opportunity to share the truth of their lives rather than live in fear. Those who know people affected by mental illness – i.e., all of us – have the opportunity to learn more about mental health issues. For more information on Mental Illness Awareness Week, visit http://www.nami.org/miaw. You have nothing to lose but your stigma.