Mental Illness Awareness Week: What does it mean to be mentally ill?

Mental Illness Awareness Week: What does it mean to be mentally ill?

What does it mean to be “mentally ill”? I think everyone may have a different take on that answer. For some it may mean to have unusual behaviors or thoughts, too be too happy or too sad, or to need medications to function. For others it may mean to be considered “unstable” or “dangerous” or “insane.”

But I think most would agree that it’s not a desirable label. And that’s exactly what “mentally ill” is, a label. Our world constantly labels us, whether it’s by our gender, race, class, sexual orientation, employment status, and on and on and on. We also often get labeled by what’s going on in our bodies, including our brains, whether it’s diabetic, paralyzed, schizophrenic, manic. The health care word, of which I am a part of professionally, and we’re all a part of on some level, takes test results, impairments, and other metrics and creates labels for us. These labels can be helpful sometimes- maybe there is some medication or treatment or therapy that can alleviate the pain and discomfort that our impairments and symptoms can bring. But these labels leave out a big piece of the full pictures.

The danger lies in individualizing these diagnoses or labels. When well call someone ill or disabled, most of think that it is that individual person’s problem, tragedy, what have you. The defect rests within the person. And we must fix the defect, right?

But what about how the rest of us create and interpret labels for each other? We (and I mean US society as a whole) create numerous barriers for each other, and particularly people we considered disabled, every day. There are the physical barriers we set up when large parts of the country are inaccessible to those who use wheelchairs or other mobility aides. There are the political barriers that create policies that cut services for people who need extra supports to fully participate in our world but are given little voice because they are not like the politicians.

And then there are the attitudinal barriers we set up. We don’t live in a world that accepts and value a large amount of difference, whether it’s how you walk, talk, or think. People don’t want to talk about mental illness because of the tremendous stigma associated with it- who wants to admit there’s a crazy person in their family or circle of friends? Crazy associates with crazy, right? For those who have a mental health diagnosis, there’s even further fear of isolation and being labeled. What would you do if you found out that someone you were going to hire, rent an apartment to, or be in a social organization with had been in a “psych ward”? For many, it’s just not safe to share that part of their identity for fear it will become their WHOLE identity to others.

So, this week and basically always, I encourage you to re-think disability, including mental illness. People with a diagnosis or impairments don’t have to be disabled- it’s the world around them that creates this. Think beyond the labels and individual diagnoses and how we as a whole create disability for ourselves and others. This may only be a first step, but it’s arguably the most important one.

For more ChicagoNow posts for Mental Illness Awareness Week, check out:

Moms Who Drink And Swear: Chicago Edition

Lipstick, Lollipops, & Life

Everything is Story Worthy

Cancer Is Not A Gift

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