Culture in Mind

Mental health, culture, and ethnicity

Violence, Mental Illness and Stigma

Challenging popular ideas about people who have a mental illness.

Violence and Mental Illness

On May 30 in Seattle, Lee Stawicki shot five people then himself. The reports of his possible mental illness (specifically bipolar disorder) reinforced the stereotypes of people with bipolar disorder as being dangerous to society. He was not diagnosed but clearly something had been wrong for many years and his father suspected he had 'manic depression' (aka bipolar disorder).

I have bipolar disorder and it is at times like these that I consciously and sometimes fearfully step out of the closet (not of my making) to remind people that people with mental illnesses can lead  productive lives by managing their symptoms under the supervision of a mental health care provider. 

Mental Illness in the Media

Because of the images in popular media such as television where a wide range of cop shows reveal the suspect to me someone with schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, many people who may have symptoms and in the early stages of a mental illness are reluctant to seek care because they are afraid of what it may mean for their future lives. They do not want to be 'one of them': people who are homeless screaming at the sky or the unemployed person who cannot take care of themselves.

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Our culture praises the addict in remission for having a certain number of symptomless days but our challenges to stay healthy are not awarded the same respect nor do they inspire the same interest.

Finding a 'Cure'

The medical science of caring for people with mental illness is not perfect, nor is it perfect for heart disease, cancer or diabetes. The biochemistry of the body is a complex thing and though diabetes is an illness of the pancreas that creates problems with biochemistry, my brain is stigmatized for having the same challenges as a pancreas: the ability to regulate itself in a healthy manner. With the right medications, therapy and social support, the symptoms of mental illness can go into remission.

The challenge of our dysfunctional health system is that it is structured to treat mental illness when there is a crisis but without really good health insurance, prevention of symptomatic episodes and ongoing treatment is a practical impossibility. Unless someone is a danger to themselves or other people it is difficult for them to help in the public care system and then only until the crisis is over. With good care, crises that require hospitalizations can be a rare occurrence and save lots of fiscal and human resources for health insurance providers, including the US government.

Fighting Stigma

I would hope that the audience for this blog would not perpetuate the stigma that is put on people with mental illnes and discourages people from seeking and following treatment. The face of mental illness are the faces of people you know well but often you do now know their 'secret'.

Instead join forces with organizations such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), Bring Change to Mind, Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance (DBSA), and the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) to get informed and to fight stigma in the workplace, and in the little ways that people discriminate against the mentally ill in the world around you.

(Note. Please do not call us 'the mentally ill' because we do not call people with cancer, 'the cancerous'. There is much more to us than our illnesses.)

Ruth C. White, Ph.D., M.S.W., and M.P.H., is the author of Bipolar 101 and is an associate clinical professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California. 

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