Friday, June 24, 2011

What's the Face of Mental Illness? Maybe it's Yours...or Mine

The functional face of mental illness has gotten some big-name press recently, from Catherine Zeta-Jones' decision to publicly address her bipolar disorder, to Dr. Marsha Linehan's interview about her own mental health struggles.  (For those readers who aren't the psychology nerds that I am, Dr. Linehan pioneered dialectical behavior therapy, which is one of the systems that inspires the work I do with my clients.)   I want to take some time today to look at what it means when people who seem to have their lives together, or in the case of Dr. Linehan and Ms. Zeta-Jones--to be pretty spectacularly successful, allow the issue of mental illness to become part of their conversation.

Unfortunately, most of the public discussion about mental illness seems either designed to poke fun (think about how people responded to Charlie Sheen's super-public meltdown), or to highlight stereotypes and stigma (how often have you heard depression or anxiety brushed off as being "in your head?").  Those experiencing mental health struggles are portrayed as "crazy" or "weak."  This means that mental health can be dismissed as a serious and significant part of whole person health.  Mental health treatment can be relegated to a second-class tier by health insurers, other medical providers, employers, schools, etc.  Individuals and families coping with mental illness often face discrimination and isolation, which can exacerbate mental health concerns.

So, when individuals like Dr. Linehan and Catherine Zeta-Jones speak up, the whole system is challenged.  Neither one of these women is someone that would be described as "crazy" or "weak" by those around them, or by the many strangers who know their work.  In fact, in their respective fields, both of them are highly regarded, accomplished professionals.  They have risen to the top of competitive fields, and are recognized for their work and their impact.  In fact, they appear to be the opposite of what people expect when they hear "mental illness."

I am so excited when this happens.  Because, by their example, Ms Zeta-Jones & Dr. Linehan are proving that individuals who cope with mental illness are totally capable of living high-functioning, high-achieving lives.  They challenge the stereotypes.  They remind us that stereotypes are nearly always uni-dimensional and limiting.  In a country where we are closing mental health facilities and building prisons, maybe these examples will help guide us to a deeper, more nuanced look at who is affected by mental illness and what that means in all of our lives.

If you read my post from last Monday, you know that I am inspired by the courage I see in my clients as they cope with their struggles with grace and dignity.  When I read stories about Dr. Linehan and Catherine Zeta-Jones, I hope that my clients are reading the same stories.  I hope that they are hearing that coping with a mental illness does not mean a life in the margins.  I hope they are realizing that having dark periods is not a life sentence of darkness.  I hope that they are inspired to share their own stories with important people in their lives, so that the stigma continues to lift.  Mostly, I hope that we are all inspired to recognize that any one of us could face mental illness if the circumstances are right--and as we recognize that, maybe we'll do a better job of lifting one another up.

How do you feel as you hear these stories?  Are you inspired?