The one thing that never goes away, though, is the small grimace of disgust that streaks across people’s faces when I disclose that I have a mental illness. I don’t know if it’s confusion or fear, but I do know that the notion of schizophrenia is infected with visions of dangerous instability, school shooters and a multitude of horror movies that feature a mentally ill masked killer.
Talk to anyone who is mentally ill about such stigma and his eyes will light up with the knowledge that you have some notion of the struggle he endures every day. I can remember one instance when I was meeting a friend to give her my book about living with schizophrenia. I was sitting at the bar in a small Italian restaurant, making small talk with an older woman, and she asked about the book. After I told her I had written it, she asked about my experience with schizophrenia. Normally, I don’t disclose so easily, and for good reason. When I told her the illness had been diagnosed in 2006, she gave me a look of abject fear and confusion, excused herself to the restroom and avoided both a goodbye and eye contact as she walked out of the restaurant several minutes later.
Another time, I was on a date with a woman who asked about my writing. When I told her about my experience, she excused herself to the restroom and, upon returning, asked me if I had ever killed anybody. The date ended shortly thereafter.
Those are extraordinary circumstances and not everybody is so flippant. In many cases, although the surprise of my illness is apparent, people can be refreshingly open-minded.
Still, it’s no secret that suffering with stigma often can be just as hard as suffering with the symptoms of the illness itself. Even more damaging is the fact that, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness Multicultural Action Center, discrimination against people with mental illnesses keeps many from actually seeking help. “While 1 in 5 Americans live with a mental disorder, estimates indicate that nearly two-thirds of all people with a diagnosable mental illness do not seek treatment, especially people from diverse communities. Lack of knowledge, fear of disclosure, rejection of friends and discrimination are a few reasons why people with mental illness don’t seek help.”
The fact remains though, that the word “schizophrenia” itself is imbued with evil imagery. If someone with mental illness doesn’t know how to navigate those waters with self-deprecation and honesty, just saying the word can bring about the end of a potential friendship or relationship simply because of fear.
This rejection only serves to fuel anxieties that a person with mental illness is inherently different and has no place in the world. Those anxieties can, in turn, cause serious damage for people who suffer them The last thing anybody needs is to feel like he doesn't belong because of something he can’t control. That is the definition of stigma.
The truth of the matter is that people with mental illness are incredibly strong, sensitive and resilient. They have gifts that elude normal people, such as enhanced creativity and the ability to see some of our society's absurdities. They do suffer though, mostly under the weight of their own delusions, paranoia, hallucinations and other symptoms that make the very act of living itself an ordeal.
The biggest thing people can do to get over their fear of the mentally ill is to keep in mind that mental illness is a disease, just like cancer. If you had a friend or loved one with cancer, would you reach out or ignore him? Why not do the same for a friend or loved one diagnosed with schizophrenia? The most important thing you can do for a person with mental illness is to just be there.
Everyone, no matter the label, needs to feel like he belongs.
Michael Hedrick was diagnosed with schizophrenia nine years ago. He lives in Boulder, Colo.