Imagine being transferred out of middle school because you have a heart problem. Or attacked as a candidate for Congress because you have a liver disease. Or living silently in pain with treatable cancer because you don't want your office colleagues to know you have it.
Today, such injustices seem pretty distant. But replace those medical conditions with depression, bipolar disease or mental illness in general, and what you have is a common experience.
At yesterday's White House Conference on Mental Health, the first ever of its kind, speakers described not only what it is like to have a psychiatric disorder, but to live with its stigma.
"60 Minutes" correspondent Mike Wallace spoke about his secret battles with depression, which he initially kept hidden from his co-workers. Robin Kitchell of Nashville explained how her manic-depressive son was asked to transfer out of the eighth grade four months from graduation. And Lynn Rivers of Michigan described how people couldn't understand her unpredictable behavior--some days she worked 20 hours without stopping, other days, she couldn't get out of bed.
In all these cases, the individuals were ultimately helped by medication and therapy. Wallace is open about his depression and still working. Kitchell's son not only graduated, but was voted most valuable player by his football team. And Rivers is now serving in Congress.
But the improvements came only after lonely struggles, often made more difficult by the attitudes and misunderstandings of others.
"The day I was diagnosed [with bipolar disorder] was one of the happiest days of my life," said Rivers (D-Mich.). "Finally, I wasn't bad or lazy or whatever people might have thought. I was sick."
Those who took the podium were received with warm applause, an affirmation of the supportive mission of the conference. John Wong, who immigrated to California from Hong Kong at age 7, described his battle with schizophrenia that went untreated. Once, he turned on his father and hit him. Now he works at the Asian Pacific Family Center and teaches English as a second language.
Tipper Gore, chairwoman of the conference, also told of her struggle with depression 10 years ago. She, too, said she had been successfully treated.
From President Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to experts in treatment and members of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the conferees decried what they called the basic unfairness of treating mental illness differently from other medical conditions.
The message that mental illness is commonplace was supported by a flood of statistics. More than 19 million adult Americans will suffer from depression this year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, and 55 million Americans will have a mental illness during their lives. The World Health Organization now calls depression the leading cause of disability in the world.
Of particular concern, said psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz of the Child Study Center of New York University, are the 2 million children suffering from depression in the United States. More than half are getting no treatment, and many attending the conference believed that the absence of readily available diagnosis and treatment may have contributed to the recent school shootings across the country.
"Normal children just don't snap and go out on a shooting spree," said Koplewicz.
Koplewicz stressed that mental illnesses from schizophrenia to depression are not the result of absentee fathers or working mothers or "bad" parenting. Rather, they are physical diseases, what he called "no-fault brain disorders." As such, he said, most mental illnesses can be treated.
To many at the conference, the importance of the event lay in its simple encouragement of public discussion of mental illness or, in the words of Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), of "letting mental illness out of the closet."
"Hopefully, the frankness here will make us all more feisty on the issues," said Lee, chairwoman of the Congressional Children's Caucus. "If we don't do anything, then shame on us."
"When leaders up to President Clinton can say that schizophrenia is a health issue--no more and no less--that makes it okay for a lot of other people to talk like that," said Katrina Gay, Midwest director of the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill and the parent of a child with mental illness. "I still don't see the stigma ending any time soon, but the frankness of the talk today about mental illness is very, very welcome."
CAPTION: Mike Wallace joined Tipper Gore yesterday at the first White House Conference on Mental Health.