To look at me, most people would not even know that I had a mental illness. Most of the time (in fact rarely now that I am on medication) I do not act out inappropriately. I have no strange ticks, or behaviors. I do not have any OCD tendencies. In fact, even when my anxiety disorder is acting up, people who did not know me very well would not even realize that I was close to a panic attack. People would deem me "normal". For the most part, I can make my way through the world with few obstacles or encountering judgmental people, because of how "normal" I appear and act. The few judgmental people that I have had to deal with were easily cut from my life. I am sure that in some ways, this makes my life easier than if I had symptoms of my disease that were more noticeable by others.
For those people with mental illnesses that are more "noticeable" than mine, life can be much more challenging. The other day I came across a blog whose author is the mother of a 17 year old young man who was recently diagnosed with Bi-polar disorder. In her http://singedwingangel.blogspot.com/2010/03/what-i-meant-to-say-wednesday- Angel Shrout, wrote an open letter to her family (and others) describing how their judgmental attitudes and behaviors have a very real and negative impact on her son.
Looking at him, he has nothing odd about him physically that would give anyone a clue that there was anything different about him. However, there are things about his behavior that makes it obvious that there is.. From the author's description, it appears he has been dealing with a mental illness for most of his life. As a result for most of his life he has been ostracized by family and others.
At an age where our children are already having self esteem issues, this young man has the added burden of not acting "normal" due to his mental illness. He is fully aware that he is "different", and understands that is why he is treated the way he is, yet it appears he has not let the judgments of others make him a bitter and angry young man. He still has a great sense of humor, loves animals, and has several gifts that his mother believes shows God's Glory shining in him.
What is the difference between that young man, who is ostracized by family and strangers, and me, who for the most part is treated just like everyone else?
I personally believe that it is easy for people to "forget" or ignore the fact that I have a mental illness. However, because of how that young man is affected by his mental illness and how it makes him behave, the fact that he has a mental illness is much more in the face of the people around him. What does how obvious our mental illnesses are have to do with anything?
Fear. I believe fear is the single most contributing factor as to why judgments are made about the mentally ill. Mental illness is scary. It is scary for the person who has it, and it is scary for outsiders as well. For the outsider though, it is a fear mingled with the unknown, misunderstanding and preconceived ideas.
For most people their only exposure to someone with a mental illness is through what they have seen on the news, a television show, or in the movies. Let's face it, most of what we see portrayed there is pretty scary stuff. Added to that fear is our natural fear of the unknown and it is easy to see why a person would jump to a judgment about someone who is obviously mentally ill.
I do not think it makes their jumping to judgments right, but I can understand it. Fear is a very powerful emotion that propels us to do many things. In the case of someone who is reacting out of fear because of their misunderstanding about people with mental illnesses, they probably truly believe that they are protecting themselves or their family by treating them differently. I would imagine though that if you or a family member were on the receiving end of such fear based judgments, it would be painful and frustrating.
I do not believe there is an easy answer to stopping fear based judgments about people with mental illnesses. I do think the more we positively expose the "mentally healthy" to people with mental illnesses and the more we educate them, then we will find people making fewer and fewer judgments about those with mental illnesses. What do you think? Do you think most of the time people make judgments about the mentally ill out of fear (misunderstanding, misinformation), or do you think people really dislike the mentally ill enough that they really believe their own negative judgments. ?
Have you ever spent some time around a person who was obviously mentally ill? How did you react to them? Were you afraid of them?
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