News and Tribune

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May 20, 2014

BEAM: Ending the dark reign of mental health stigma

— In 2001, Carrie Fisher spoke in the rotunda of the Indiana Statehouse. Yes, THE Princess Leia, a woman worshipped by “Star Wars” fans across a galaxy not so far, far away, not to mention a couple of Hoosier Senate workers very nearby.

Yours truly was in that mix.

Fisher came to discuss increased funding for psychiatric services in our state. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the actress has long been an advocate for those affected by mental illness.

Looking back, things were different in the capitol that day, despite all the fanfare. Voices whispered through the halls, wondering about Fisher’s mental state. Some people, including me, gossiped about reports that alleged she had difficulty getting off the plane that day or how her illness affected her look or the way she spoke.

Things that wouldn’t be said of an actress with a physical ailment like cancer or other injury were blurted out about Fisher. In a small amount of time, we transformed a heroic princess into a weird outsider. Jabba the Hutt might have garnered more sympathy.

Only later would I admit to the wrong of what happened that day. We were perpetuating a stereotype of those affected by mental illness. Based on media representations and other false assumptions, we decided that people with bipolar disorder acted a certain way. Fisher was being branded through that lens, even though none of her actions gave us any cause to think as much. But, for whatever reason, we did and we spread it.

That’s the power of social stigma.

When writing the series on suicide that ran in the News and Tribune this week, I was reminded of my encounter with Fisher. Four Hoosiers affected by the issue spoke to me.

Mike Mudd Sr., Stacie Wolfe, Zach McIlwain and Cindy Ryan broke down that stigma and told their personal stories. They did this in hopes of preventing other needless tragedies. Thank you all for your honesty.  

Still, not everyone in our society feels comfortable talking about suicide, even when discussing ways to prevent it. A few still feel the need to stereotype those who died from suicide in a negative light. These associations can force people who are having suicidal thoughts to remain alone in the darkness.

Compounding the issue is the fact that more than 90 percent of those who take their own lives have at least one mental illness. In the not-so-distant past, some in society viewed those with these conditions as dangerous or unstable. That myth is slowly changing, but it still can deter those with mental illness to seek much-needed treatment.

The strange thing is mental health disorders are not as rare as many believe. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an estimated 26 percent of Americans 18 and over suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, while only 6 percent of the total population has a serious mental illness, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or depression.

The 2012 National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed 62.9 percent of adults in America who had a serious mental illness had received mental health treatment in the past 12 months.  

Ending mental illness stereotypes can increase these treatment numbers, and hopefully prevent people from taking their own lives.

A mental disorder shouldn’t define you. Just as with any physical injury, medical help should be sought for emotional, behavioral and psychological impairments.

Sure, sometimes it stinks to admit you need that assistance. Just this month, I started taking a prescribed medication for severe anxiety again. I hate needing those drugs to effectively function in my daily life, but the results are undeniable. I’m a better mother, writer and friend when I’m on them. So I suck it up and deal it.

Although at first difficult, inquiring about treatment from my family doctor allowed me to control my illness. We as a society must promote a safe environment so men, women and children feel comfortable telling others about these kinds of problems.

Also, we got to learn to check on each other. If someone seems down, ask how they’re doing and provide them with resources like the confidential Hope Now Hotline (1-800-221-0446) when needed.

Mental illness can affect people of all economic and social strata, even a pop culture icon like Princess Leia. Knowing the facts and stopping the stereotypes may not be our only hope, but it sure will go a long way.  

— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at adbeam47@aol.com

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