While statistics seem to support the fact that a growing number of people, young and old, are suffering from depression, a form of mental illness, it’s probably also true that most believe the disease to be an affliction of those existing on the fringes of society. The stereotypical image is of the homeless person shouting profanities at nobody in particular, as he makes his way down city sidewalks. Normal, upstanding citizens never imagine that depression is lurking among their own kind. But it is, and it needs to be dealt with, just like any other illness, out in the open where treatment can be offered, and where the sufferer need not fear being stigmatized.
A friend of mine spoke of her friend, whose daughter suffered bipolar disorder. My girlfriend spoke of it in passing, so I didn’t give it much thought until I saw an article in the street newspaper, Real Change, entitled “Putting a new face on mental illness.” It was subtitled “UW conference tackles stereotypes, looks for solutions.” Featured were Linea Johnson, and her mom, Cinda. These were the same 2 people of whom my friend had spoken.
When Linea Johnson was hospitalized at Harborview, her mother took her on an outing to a nearby coffee shop. There, the two saw a homeless man talking to himself outside the store, apparently psychotic. When they went in, they found a barista had taken video of the man and was showing it around. People were laughing.
The scene unnerved Johnson and her parents. Unbeknownst to anyone at the coffee shop, Johnson had something in common with the homeless man being mocked. At Harborview, doctors were treating her for bipolar disorder.
Johnson had waved off the depression she’d had since her high school days in Bellevue by staying busy. Her piano playing and singing earned her a scholarship to Chicago’s Columbia College.
By the time she was a sophomore, in 2006, she could no longer drown out her disease with music. She fell into a paralyzing depression and was talking about hurting herself.
Johnson’s then-boyfriend called her parents in Bellevue and told them they had to come and get her.
It’s difficult when anyone suffers from depression, but I think it’s even more poignant for young people who have less life experience to help buffer the pain. They’ve not yet accumulated an inventory of “go-to” mechanisms, including that subconscious, little voice that does battle against our automatic, negative thoughts, or “ants” as Dr. Daniel Amen, renowned psychiatrist, likes to call them. Teens or young adults caught in the grips of depression, are unable to believe that their lives, brief as they are, are worth continuing. And so they descend very quickly into thoughts of self-destruction.
Stepping back from the brink, Linea returned home to Washington and tried alternative health practices such as yoga, meditation and acupuncture before she found herself in a psychiatric ward in Harborview Medical Center. She discovered that she was among patients who were like the homeless man outside the coffee shop, isolated and ridiculed for being mentally ill.
Johnson eventually gave up music and got a bachelor’s degree in creative writing. She originally started telling her story to students in the classes taught at Seattle University by her mother Cinda, an education professor.
The mother and daughter realized they’d touched a nerve from the reactions Johnson got after each talk. Many would say, “Wow, you don’t look like someone with mental illness,” Johnson said. Others started openly discussing their own or a family member’s condition, sometimes for the first time in their lives.
Today, Linea Johnson travels the country talking about life on the other side…so that others can get help and break through the stigma of mental illness.
It’s unfortunate that one negative stereotype continues to proliferate. “A homeless person shouting in a doorway is the image that comes to mind when most people think of the mentally ill, said Declan Wynne, Sound Mental Health‘s director of recovery services. No one thinks of people like Linea Johnson or his own bipolar uncle, who owns a law firm. ‘People don’t associate that type of successful individual with mental illness,’ Wynne said.
According to Amnon Shoenfield, director of King County’s Mental Health, Chemical Abuse and Dependency Services Division, mental illness “affects one out of four or five people in this country.” With those statistics he’s surprised that the stigma remains. He goes on to say that mental illness is viewed as “a sign of weakness or bad parenting…” And that it’s often treated as a dreaded disease that people are fearful of catching. This is especially difficult when a service provider meets with resistance from a residential area, where neighbors object to having the mentally ill living within their midst.
Shoenfeld feels the media amplifies the fear factor by “portraying the mentally ill as violent when they are no more dangerous than the population at large…‘You don’t see a headline in a newspaper that (reads) “Individual without mental illness commits murder.” He goes on to say that victims of the disease, when prescribed the right treatment, are able to manage their illness just as those with diabetes or heart disease. “While symptoms may not go away entirely, people can live in the community and lead stable lives.”
Linea currently lives with her boyfriend in an apartment, is working with her mom on a research grant at Seattle University, and blogs on BringChange2Mind, responding to inquiries from those seeking information on mental illness. In the works is a book, “Perfect Chaos,” a collaborative effort of mother and daughter detailing their journey through the life-altering changes wrought by depression. ” ‘It affects everyone. It’s a community problem,’ Cinda Johnson said of mental illness. ‘With the cutbacks in funding and economics the way they are, we really need to join together as a community to support each other with this,’ she said. ‘One in five means we’re all in this together.’ ”
Actress Glenn Close is a dedicated supporter of changing the perceptions of the mentally ill in our society. Her nephew Calen, her sister’s son, has schioaffective disorder. Close began the organization BringChange2Mind in 2009 to address the stigma that weighs heavily upon sufferers of the illness. With funding from the Thomas C. Wales Foundation, Close, along with the Johnsons, health care providers and others with a vested interest, sponsored a “Symposium on Mental Health in our Community” earlier in the month.
It’s obvious that when we are faced with the unknown, we react fearfully. Unable to find the appropriate “box” within which to place it, we’re unable to step “outside the box.” Over time the habit of never venturing outside our comfort zone, makes us short-sighted creatures controlled by our habits. The fact that we have free will to choose differently escapes us. It’s too easy to travel through life on “cruise control.”
gotta shake off bad habits…some of them really are bad for our health…hugmamma.