Welcome to a new group of readers who found this blog after The Associated Press published a long story over the weekend on attempt survivors and the trend in speaking out. “We’re not that fragile,” one woman told the reporter. “We have to figure out how to talk about it, rather than avoiding it.”
The story has gone all over. It showed up on the sites of The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, NPR, The Wall Street Journal, Salon, and elsewhere. Responses so far have been wonderful and strong. “One myth that needs to be laid to rest: People do not attempt or commit suicide because they are cowards. They do it because they are hurting,” one woman commented on the AP’s Facebook page.
A note to the media: Interested in pursuing your own story on this, or including those with thoughts or actions of suicide when reporting on suicide? Let us know. We can talk about what is, as the AP story notes, a serious public health issue _ and we want to.
It’s a point that this week’s contributing writer, Kathlean Wolf, makes powerfully here:
I keep seeing this term on the Internet and hearing it on the radio during the
gun control debates: “mental health advocates.”
“Mental health advocates” are concerned when new gun control laws like the one in New York require them to give up patient information to the government. “Mental health advocates” are quick to point out that most people with mental illness are not violent. Bravo, mental health advocates! But I can’t help but wonder: Who are you? Who are these people supposedly speaking up for my needs, explaining the challenges I face to the world at large? Are they people who’ve had similar experiences, who share my point of view? Do they, like me, have a good job, a relatively stable life, wonderful friends and a great doctor they work with to manage their problems? Are they people who have dealt with depression, who know firsthand what it feels like?
No. I listen to the radio on my way to and from work; I read news online and occasionally watch television with my best friend; I hear expert after expert speak about people like me … in the third-person. “Those people.”
I’m one of those people. Not one of the violent ones. No, I’m just your average, everyday person, who happens to also have bipolar.
I also happen to be a lesbian. I am a “gay rights advocate.” I spend time speaking out, trying to change attitudes toward people like me. Most people who advocate for gay rights are gay people, “queers,” people who don’t fit the “normal” heterosexual model. Other advocates are frequently family members and friends of gay people, but by and large, gay people are the main force behind the gay rights movement. We speak for ourselves.
I can explain how normal and happy my life as a lesbian is. I can speak to the persecution in elementary school, the rejection by religious leaders, the way my family reacted when I told them and how supportive they have been. I can explain how it feels to decide to come out in one area of my life, but not another _ out to all my friends, hiding at work, guarding my Internet identity carefully. My straight friends believe what I tell them about being a lesbian. I am the expert, after all. I’ve spoken to the media, representing my community in the fight to oppose Amendment 3, a change to the Utah constitution that would have prevented not only gay marriage, but any recognition of rights similar to married couples. I’ve volunteered with the Utah Pride Center. By “coming out” to friends, family and the
media, I put a face to the name “lesbian” and help people to realize: We’re just like
When I deal with the part of my life that includes bipolar, there is no “mental health pride center” to go to. I have never spoken with lawmakers, never spoken to the director of a “mental health rights” organization. No one has asked for my opinion about what’s most important to me. If I go to a bipolar support group, the focus is not “How can we change public attitudes toward people with bipolar?” No, the focus is on coping with our illness. Those people speaking on my behalf? They are doctors. Psychiatrists, psychologists. They are researchers. In many cases, their qualifications to speak for me are the years they spent in school to get a medical degree or Ph.D. Occasionally, they are parents of children with mental illness. Their point of view includes one narrow aspect of my life: the part that is broken.
My father sent me a link to a New York Times article from 2011 about a woman with schizoaffective disorder who actually needed a high-profile career as a part of her mental health maintenance. “Her mind runs on high, and without fuel _ without work _ it seems to want to feed on itself,” the article says. With the intensity of her job burning off all that
mental energy, she’s found a perfect niche to foster success.
“‘It’s just embarrassing,” Dr. Stephen R. Marder, director of the psychosis
section at U.C.L.A.’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, told the Times. “For years, we as psychiatrists have been telling people with a diagnosis
what to expect; we’ve been telling them who they are, how to change their lives _ and it
was bad information.”
This doctor, many doctors, are so focused on what’s wrong, they don’t realize
that there is another side. Not only do they only see us when we’re down, they see much
more of the patients whose lives are more negatively impacted by mental illness. I only
see my doctor every three months or so, and since I began working with her four years
ago, I’ve had two brief visits to the hospital emergency room, both resolved within a few
hours. My doctor sees me for less than 12 hours in a year. Is my healthy, well-managed
life going to make the bigger impression on her, or will she be more impacted by the
patient who ends up in and out of the hospital every few weeks?
I live every day of my life with bipolar: I go to work, and I am bipolar. I raise my daughter, and I am bipolar. I go to a hockey game, and I am bipolar. I laugh, cheer, smile, make jokes, go on dates, build bookshelves, hang a bird feeder off my fire escape, go kayaking across the lake at sunrise; and I am bipolar. I miss a few too many hours of sleep, a pill ends up stuck in the bottom of my pill case and I don’t notice, I get suicidal or have a seizure; and I am bipolar. Which of these parts of my life does my doctor see? Does she know about the hockey game or the kayaking at sunrise? Does she know that my boss at work likes my conscientious work ethic? The friends, the dates, trips to the grocery store with my daughter, laughing and making silly jokes? Does she know that I enjoy woodcarving and decorative knotwork, that I like Stephen King novels, or that I participate in a poetry writer’s group? If she is asked about someone like me, what part of my life can she speak to? Only the part that happens when something goes wrong.
From the Utah Pride Center mission statement: “Utah Pride is a catalyst for building and celebrating the strength, equality, dignity and self-determination of the LGBTQ community throughout Utah.” As a lesbian in a strong GLBT community, I was filled with a sense of pride about my identity and my community. One hundred years ago, there was no “gay rights” movement. Gays were invisible; sometimes we were even considered to be mentally ill, institutionalized for life. In the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, gay men and women came together and formed social groups dedicated to gaining acceptance and equality. Their rallying cry at newborn Pride Parades was “Out, Loud, and Proud!”
If people like me were speaking for ourselves about our mental illnesses, what would the conversation look like? If we came together in a Mental Pride Parade, what would we chant? I can’t say that I’m proud of having bipolar; I’d change that aspect of my life, if I could. But I am proud of the fact that I manage the illness well enough to have an otherwise rich and successful life. As a mental health advocate, that is the
perspective I have to offer.
If mental health advocates who are mentally ill did get together, would we be talking about how to manage our medications, how to cope with stigma and how awful it feels to have a perfectly good day turn into a miserable one for no other reason than a shift in brain chemistry? Absolutely. I do need validation once in a while about how hard this can be. But that is not the beginning and end of the conversation. If I only focused on the hard times, it would be depressing, and a major focus of my life is avoiding things that depress me. I want to talk about what I’m doing right, the things that make my life a success.
From 2004 to 2008, I taught middle school. The stresses of teaching were so great that I had what doctors once termed a “nervous breakdown.” After a few years of recovery, I found a job in the construction field. I build giant commercial buildings, often working outside in all weather, wearing rugged clothing, working with power tools and heavy machinery. I’ve been in the field for two years, and I like my job. But there’s one benefit that stands above the rest: The lowered level of human interactions allows me to store up my emotional resources for family and friendships outside of work. I’m more mentally stable than I have been in decades.
If mental health advocates were actually people like me, people with mental illnesses, how could we change the way people with mental illnesses are viewed? Could we help researchers to find out what jobs tend to work well for people with bipolar, PTSD, obsessive-compulsive disorder or schizophrenia? Could we eliminate the stigma that people with mental illnesses are homeless, strange, abusive and violent? Could we teach our doctors that we are so much more than non-standard brain chemistry, that we are capable of making wise decisions about our own lives?
The biggest impact on the success of the gay rights movement was the idea of
“coming out.” Several times since the Newtown shootings, I have called up radio
shows to say, without shame, “I have a major mental illness,” and discussed the
realities of a normal, full life lived with bipolar. I’m a mental health advocate. Would
you like to know how a lesbian, mother, kayaker and construction worker, who happens
to have bipolar, keeps mentally healthy? Ask me.