All in the Family

Mental Illness and Caregiving Across the Generations

Soaring With Mental Illness

People with severe mental illness who have enriched our world

The Paralympic Games, involving athletes with a range of physical and intellectual disabilities, began this week in Sochi. Grown from a small competition of British World War II veterans in 1948, the Paralympics will include 692 athletes from 45 countries, competing in 5 sports and 7 disciplines.

Some of the athletes have congenital deficits. Michael Bruegger (Skier, Switzerland) was born with a deformed right leg. Since birth, the right side of Markus Salcher’s (Skier, Austria) body has been paralyzed. Vincent Gauthier-Manuel (Skier, France) was born with his left arm missing.

Others lost limbs as a result of tragic accidents. At 17 years of age, while riding a motorcycle, Evan Strong (Snowboarder, U.S.) was hit by a vehicle and his left leg had to be amputated. Claudia Loesch (Skier, Austria) became a paraplegic after a car accident at age 5.

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Others suffered illness that led to physical disability. Amy Purdy (Snowboarding, U.S.) had both legs amputated after surviving bacterial meningitis when she was 19 years old. Bibian Mentel-Spee (Snowboard, Netherlands) was a 6-time Dutch champion in half-pipe and snowboard cross events. She was on her way to qualifying for the Salt Lake City 2002 Winter Olympic games before she lost her lower right leg to cancer.

The stories can break your heart. They also can help you see the power of the human spirit.

The Paralympic Games are designed to emphasize ability and achievement, not disability, putting the spotlight on people who overcame incredible odds.  

Watching athletes with disabilities accomplish the nearly unthinkable made me realize that others who struggle with their own demons, such as people with mental illness, also have accomplished greatness. They include:

  • Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, had severe and incapacitating depression
  • Ludwig van Beethoven, the brilliant composer of 9 symphonies, 5 piano concertos, 32 piano sonatas, and 16 spring quartets, experienced bipolar disorder
  • Vaslov Nijinsky, the dancer, battled schizophrenia
  • Winston Churchill, a legendary political leader, had bipolar disorder
  • Charles Dickens, one of England’s greatest authors, suffered from clinical depression
  • Ernest Hemingway, the Pulitzer prize winning novelist, suffered depression that led to suicide

The Mental Health Advocacy website lists scores of successful actors, artists, musicians, poets, writers, sports figures, entrepreneurs, and business leaders with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and depression. Take a look at the list. It’s impressive.

Unlike competitors in the Paralympics, whose disabilities are easy to spot, many people with mental illness are able to hide their illnesses. They hide because they know life will be more difficult if they don’t.  

Occasionally, however, some with mental illness achieve success, stop hiding, and become role models and advocates for people with mental illness. Women like Kay Redfield Jamison, Ph.D., Elyn Saks, J.D., and Marsha Linehan, Ph.D.—mental health professionals who have waged life-long struggles with their own serious mental illnesses—truly inspire.

  • Kay Redfield Jamison, Professor of Psychiatry at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is a clinical psychologist and author of the classic textbook about bipolar disorder, a condition she has suffered from since her early adulthood. Her memoir, An Unquiet Mind, tells her story.
  • Elyn Saks, Associate Dean and Orrin B. Evans Professor of Law, Psychology, and Psychiatry and the Behavioral Sciences at the University of Southern California Gould Law School, is an expert in mental health law and a Mac­Arthur Foundation Fellowship winner. Saks lives with schizophrenia and has written about her life in her award-winning memoir, The Center Cannot Hold.
  • Marsha Linehan was treated for extreme social withdrawal at age 17. Her May 31, 1963 discharge summary from the Institute of Living noted that Linehan was one of the most disturbed patients in the hospital.1  For years Linehan tried to kill herself. Then, drawing strength from her Catholic faith, she transformed herself. She earned a Ph.D. in psychology in 1971 and learned to accept herself.  In her practice, she treated people with a diagnosis that she would have given her young self—Borderline Personality Disorder—a poorly understood condition characterized by neediness, outbursts, and self-destructive urges. She developed a new approach to treatment—Dialectical Behavior Therapy—and successfully treated patients so difficult that other therapists avoided them. She is Professor of Psychology at University of Washington.

It was not until these women had reached the pinnacle of their careers that each came forward with the truth about her illness. Redfield Jamison didn’t publish her memoir until she was 49. Saks was 53. Linehan told her story when she was 68 years old.

People with mental illness, like many of the athletes participating in the Paralympic Games, often face odds that many would find insurmountable. Yet, people with mental illness, like people with physical disability, can accomplish much with the right supports.

As we celebrate the Paralympics Games, it’s time to celebrate those who soar and refuse to let illness or disability define them. But it’s also time to recognize that there would be many other people—including many suffering from mental illness—who could and would contribute productively to society if only the right supports were more widely available.

Someday maybe we’ll give medals to people with mental illness who make extraordinary contributions just as we now give recognition to the Paralympic athletes.

For now, do you know someone with mental illness who deserves a medal? Tell me about them.

  1. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/23/health/23lives.html

Rachel Pruchno, Ph.D. is Endowed Chair and Professor of Medicine at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine. Her memoir Surrounded by Madnessis available at online bookstores.

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