Archive for Mental Illness

The Persistence of the Mental Illness Stigma

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Shhh-SilenceThere is an excellent guest op-ed piece in today’s New York Times written by two high-school women who articulately express the their experience of the travails of chronic depression, its isolating quality, and the stigma that remains attached to the reality. I was moved by their desire to unveil some of the solitary, and thereby confounding, dimension of such illness through their practice of journalism, only to be prevented by their school’s administrators. The argument against publishing such interviews with peers was “concern” for the students, yet this road constructed with seeming best intentions actually led to the reiterating hell of isolation and reinforcement of social stigma that needs to be lifted.

These young women deserve a lot of credit and I’m proud of the New York Times for publishing their piece. I have a number of friends — some in religious life, some not — who suffer from illnesses including chronic depression and general anxiety disorder. Part of their challenge, which is truly unnecessary, is the inability to freely share their experiences for all the reasons these two young women write about in their essay. I hope that this won’t be the end of the discussion. I also hope that their high school realizes that if it’s good enough for the NYT, it should be good enough for a school paper.

Here’s the full piece:

“Depressed, But Not Ashamed” by Madeline Halpert and Eva Rosenfeld.

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — MOST of our closest friends didn’t know that we struggled with depression. It just wasn’t something we discussed with our high school classmates. We found that we both had taken Prozac only when one of us caught a glimpse of a prescription bottle in a suitcase during a journalism conference last November. For the first time, we openly discussed our feelings and our use of antidepressants with someone who could relate. We took a risk sharing our experiences with depression, but in our honesty, we found a support system. We knew we had to take the idea further.

In the United States, for people between the ages of 10 and 24, suicide is the third leading cause of death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Untreated depression is one of the leading causes of suicide. According to the National Comorbidity Survey: Adolescent Supplement, 11 percent of adolescents have a depressive disorder by age 18.

We were not alone. We wondered why, with so many teenagers dealing with depression, it was still addressed in such impersonal ways.

As editors at our high school newspaper, we decided to fight against the stigma and proposed devoting a whole edition to personal stories from our peers who were suffering from mental illness. We wanted honesty with no anonymity.

We knew that discussing mental health in this way would be edgy, even for our progressive community in Michigan. But we were shocked when the school administration would not allow us to publish the articles.

With the help of other journalism students, we interviewed teenagers from around our school district who shared stories of depression, eating disorders, homelessness, prescription abuse, insomnia and anxiety. Many discussed their personal struggles for the first time. All agreed to attach their full name — no anonymity or pseudonyms. Following online recommendations of the Student Press Law Center, we asked the parents of each student to sign consent forms for the articles.

As we were putting the stories together, the head of our school called us into her office to tell us about a former college football player from our area who had struggled with depression and would be willing to let us interview him. We wondered why she was proposing this story to us since he wasn’t a current high school student. We declined her suggestion. We didn’t want to replace these deeply personal articles about our peers with a piece about someone removed from the students. After we asked her why she was suggesting this, she told us that she couldn’t support our moving forward with the articles.

From an administrative perspective, this made some sense. It is her job to protect the students to the best of her ability. She believed that the well-being of those who shared their experiences — and most important, their names — would be put at risk because of potential bullying. She also mentioned that she had consulted a mental health professional, who told her that reading about their own depression could trigger a recurrence in some of the students and that those who committed to telling their stories might regret it later.

Our school has a very tolerant atmosphere, and it even has a depression awareness group, so this response seemed uncharacteristic. We were surprised that the administration and the adults who advocated for mental health awareness were the ones standing in the way of it. By telling us that students could not talk openly about their struggles, they reinforced the very stigma we were trying to eliminate.

The feeling of being alone is closely linked to depression. This can be exacerbated if there is no one to reach out to. Though there are professionals to talk to, we feel it doesn’t compare to sharing your experiences with a peer who has faced similar struggles. And, most important to us, no one afflicted with a mental illness should have to believe that it’s something he should feel obliged to hide in the first place. If someone has an illness such as diabetes, she is not discouraged from speaking about it. Depression does not indicate mental weakness. It is a disorder, often a flaw of biology, not one of character.

By interviewing these teenagers for our newspaper, we tried — and failed — to start small in the fight against stigma. Unfortunately, we’ve learned this won’t be easy. It seems that those who are charged with advocating for our well-being aren’t ready yet to let us have an open and honest dialogue about depression.

Mental Health, Redemption, and Silver Linings

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on January 10, 2013 by Daniel P. Horan, OFM

Silver-Linings-Playbook-1984905For those like me who have only ever known the actor Bradley Cooper from a role in some outrageous comedy (think “The Hangover”), you might be surprised to find, as I did, that Cooper can really act well. I imagine it requires certain skills to act well in over-the-top comedies too, but it’s difficult to imagine what sort of finesse and attention to character development is required when the overarching goal of the film is to push-limits and make people laugh. The recent film Silver Linings Playbook, staring Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence (best known as “Katniss” from the film version of The Hunger Games), is an excellent movie. Cooper and Lawrence do something, at least in my opinion, that few actors known for a very narrow type of previous work can do — they succeed in embodying and presenting new, real, and complex characters.

For those who are not familiar with the storyline from the film or the book from which it’s based — The Silver Linings Playbook: A Novel by Matthew Quick — it centers on Pat, a former high school substitute teacher, who is released from a mental-health facility in Baltimore to move back with his parents in Philadelphia. As the story goes on, we learn the details of what led to his eight-month hospitalization. A major theme throughout, connected to this hospitalization, is Pat’s obsession with reconciling his marriage and getting back together with his wife (I won’t say more, for fear of spoiling the movie/book).

silver_linings_playbookWe learn that Pat suffers from bipolar disorder and we see him struggle with wanting not to take his medication (often during manic cycles), suffer the pain of delusion and fear, and try to make sense of a life that is, at times, very surreal and scary. Enters, then, a young woman, Tiffany. She is a recent widow and someone who has, without as clear a diagnosis (she self-descriptively says “crazy,” others also follow that lead in describing her), her own struggles with depression and other mental-health issues. For some reason, Tiffany seems able to break through Pat’s wall of distorted reality, mania, fear, and depression. That’s all I’ll say about that.

While this film does bear signs of a hollywood movie, there are some genuine moments of complexity and truthfulness that break through the story to elicit something of a reaction from the audience or reader. There is something very real about these characters, at least inasmuch as you can ascertain such reality in two hours.

The sense of reality of the characters in this story — including the slightly neurotic father (Robert De Niro) and tired, but unconditionally loving mother (Jacki Weaver) — was confirmed in my case by the reflection it evoked in me about my first year of ministry with the friars.

Nearly eight-years ago, I entered the Franciscan Order as a postulant, lived in a friary at a parish in the Bronx, and worked three days a week at a housing center the friars operated in midtown Manhattan for formerly homeless, mentally ill people. I remember being a little afraid after receiving that ministry assignment, I had very little experience with actual people with severe mental illness. What I thought I knew, I learned from TV, books, and the movies. There is also a general, if low-grade, fear that seems to haunt our contemporary society with regard to those we label “mentally ill,” which both accounts for the general stigmas associated with diagnosed women and men and the uncertainty about what to expect that afflicted me early on.

This fear of “madness” is exactly what the French philosopher Michel Foucault suggests arises to replace more ancient fears of leprosy and the like, and which ultimately leads to the widespread confinement of such diagnosed people — something the movie character Pat knows all about after his eight-month stay in Baltimore.

Although it sounds trite, what I came to realize in New York City was that those labeled “mentally ill” or “crazy” or “mad” or any of the other monikers associated with that social (or medical) status are real people too. They have histories, fears, joys, anxieties, struggles, intelligence, skills, and so on, like everybody else. Aspects of their daily experience are more difficult to negotiate in society than the “average person” (whatever that means). I formed friendships, learned from and came to really admire and appreciate many of these wonderful people. Their lives are difficult and, many times, very sad.

I saw this come through in Silver Linings Playbook in a perceptible way. You see it in the reactions of parents, in family members, in lifelong friends — they are afraid, especially early on, and don’t know what to expect from Pat. He has outbursts, can be violent, but we realize that this is something outside of his control, it is an effect of a world that only exists in his personal reality, a world that is difficult to reconcile with the world of others.

The relationship that arises, from an unlikely and initially awkward friendship between Pat and Tiffany, does so imperfectly and (in true novel/hollywood form) romantically, but it reveals that fear is not the right response, love, patience, and understanding are the only way forward.

I hope that this movie has a positive impact on the social perception of mental illness, although I know it’s unreasonable to expect a popular film to have any measurable impact. There is, as a fellow friar told me weeks back in encouraging me to see this movie, a story of redemption here. A story of reconciliation, in the literal sense, of bringing together pieces of a life — of lives — broken apart. Not all stories that begin and continue in a similar way end on such a hollywood happy note, but the reality of personhood, dignity, and humanity remains the same no less in the far-too-often sad stories of everyday experiences.

Photo: Pool
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