The Lunatic Asylum

The Lunatic Asylum (Photo credit: tj.blackwell)

 

In my last two posts, Hating the Haters and We Should Not Write Off The Mentally Ill I have been discussing the reasons, both economically and from a spiritual point of view, that we as a nation should continue to support programs that help the mentally ill, including those that can help put them back to work. Unfortunately there are so many misconceptions about people with mental disorders that it is probably very confusing to the average voter as to how to help or whether to help at all.

People with mental health disorders suffer a great deal of stigma in regards to their ability to work. A poll a few years back indicated that most Americans would not want to work with a co-worker who has schizophrenia. This despite the fact that schizophrenia is very treatable. Part of the fear that these people had is due to the irresponsible reporting of the media as portraying schizophrenics as violent.

Anybody who commits a senseless crime is labeled “psycho” However most people don’t even know what the term means. In most cases, violent criminals are perfectly sane.  There is a confusion of meaning between the terms “psychotic” and “psychopathic” They do not mean the same thing.

A psychopath is someone without a conscience. Another word used is sociopath. He may be a scumbag, but he is perfectly sane.

The word psychotic refers to someone who has a break with reality. This person may have hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. Schizophrenics have these symptoms and sometimes people with mood disorders also. A person like this is rarely violent.

Another common misconception that the word schizophrenia refers to multiple personality disorder, or what now is called dissociative identity disorder (DID). DID is considered a rare illness and usually does not result in violence.

It has been established that people with a mental health disorder are no more violent than the general population. Personally I feel more comfortable in the company of someone who has schizophrenia than with a gang-banger.

So we have a society that sees mental health sufferers as violent and possibly needing to be locked up for a very long time.

If that weren’t enough of a stigma to combat, mental health sufferers have a relatively new stigma to deal with. The stigma of getting better. Thanks to new and better drugs, most do not need long-term institutional care. That is a great thing right?

Mostly yes it is, except for the fact that now the recovering mental health consumers are vilified because they are too normal!  In other words, if they got so much better from modern medicine then they must have not been very sick in the first place. Gosh, most people would not make a judgment like that on someone who recovered from a serious infection by the use of antibiotics!

Of course that isn’t a perfect analogy because in fact mental illness cannot be cured. Its symptoms can be managed, but that is it.

So now we have the “high-functioning” mental health consumers who seem to be doing well, so people criticize them for not working. What they do not understand is that relapse is common and without some sort of societal “safety net” these people can and do end up back on the street.

The truth is that most of these people want to work.

I knew someone from my work in the mental health field who seemed perfectly normal. No one would have been able to detect that he had schizophrenia. He took his medication faithfully. He had a good job and his life seemed to be on track.

Unfortunately he had a very serious relapse, through no fault of his own. He lost touch with reality. He was fired from his job and kicked out of his housing because these people thought he was on drugs. One small twist of fate and he was back on the street.

I have never had to face the possibility of being homeless, thank God. But when I heard this story my heart literally broke. Becoming homeless can happen in the blink of an eye.

Yes there are laws that protect mental health consumers from discrimination, but they don’t always work. And disclosing the fact that one has a diagnosis to an employer or to anyone else is a very risky move.

In the case of this man he felt that the stigma of having an illness was far worse than the stigma of using drugs.

Unfortunately, this was not the first time this had happened to him. It may be that it wasn’t the last time either. Try building a resume on that!

Cases like this are why we need as a nation to support mental health care for those who are in need.

There are government-funded programs that can help people get back on their feet again, get jobs and if necessary provide financial assistance. As a nation we should be judged on how we treat the most vulnerable members of society. I don’t think God will judge us if we allow gay marriage. Jesus said we would be judged based on our compassion towards others.