One Step at a Time

Recently, I was reading Nickelodeon Magazine with my second-grade son and cringed when one of the articles mentioned “going to the loony bin.” When he asked me what this meant, I was glad to have the opportunity to provide an unbiased and unhurtful explanation. Several nights later when we were watching the actual Nickelodeon TV show, another term came up—the funny farm. Again I explained to my son that this was another negative way of saying a hospital for people who have a mental illness.

The more things change, the more they stay the same. I remember as a kid teasing my friends that they would end up at a funny farm or making the universal sign for craziness—moving the index finger in circular motions by the side of the head above the ear. I can still remember the lyrics of a then popular song: “They’re coming to take you away (ha, ha, ho, ho) to the funny farm where life is beautiful all the time… Little did I realize I would end up one of those who would go to this “funny farm.”

And it isn’t only the children’s shows. As recently seen, programs such as ER and Ally McBeal are not accurately portraying mental illness. And the ABC TV show Wonderland only made a few airings before going down the path to nonexistence. No one knows for sure, but the fact that there was outrage from the general public as well as from various mental health organizations may have had a lot to do with the show’s demise.

It’s a good sign, I believe, that organizations and individuals are becoming more forthright about getting the facts out about mental health. During Mental Health month, a wonderful series of ads were run by the Oak Park (Illinois) Township Community Mental Health Board, Oak Park Board of Health, and Oak Park Department of Child & Family Services. Under the overarching theme “Changing Minds,” the ads addressed different topics as:

–Mental illness is not a natural part of the aging process –Depression is more than just “a case of the blues” –Would you tell a guy with cancer to snap out of it? –Are the best years of your life being crippled by panic and fear? –Is this the face of severe mental illness? (run with a photo of a smiling woman)

And my favorite: “Sometimes the stigma is worse than the illness.” With copy that reads:

“A person with mental illness has enough obstacles to overcome without being shamed, labeled, pigeonholed or discriminated against. Mental illnesses are physical, biologically based brain disorders. They’re not caused by bad character or poor child-rearing. Show some compassion in dealing with mental illness. It could just as easily be you.” AMEN!

Slowly, individuals, as well as organizations are starting “to come out of the closet” about mental illness. Yes, it may have reeked of politics, but it did not hurt to have Tipper Gore discuss her situation and urge Americans to recognize mental illness as a treatable problem without “stigma and …shame.” And last year a Georgian went on a 1,000mile trek to help end the stigma of mental illness. Said someone who watched Stewart Perry walk by, “If Stewart can do it…so can we.”

And what about me? Can I break my fear of talking about this illness with anyone else besides my family and closest friends? I have to remember that there’s no shame in being mentally ill. I also have to get rid of the guilt because I cannot carry my usual load of obligations. (If I had a debilitating physical illness I wouldn’t feel this guilt!) And I have to squash the stereotypes in my own mind. Remember, as a child I also made fun of the loonies. And now I’m one of them!