“But you seem so normal.” It’s a response I’ve become all too familiar with. I live with bipolar disorder. After several years, I’ve finally found a combination of medication and therapy that allows me to pass as “normal.” I’m fortunate enough to even afford treatment, a luxury many do not have. The general population is not wholly unfamiliar with mental illness. From Amanda Bynes’ recent erratic behavior to Britney Spears’ infamous shaved head in 2007, anyone with a TV has witnessed how detrimental mental illness can be. But these public breakdowns only provide us with a limited scope. Media sensationalism only fuels stigma. It makes it easier to detach ourselves from the reality of mental illness. We can believe that people living with mental illness are outright crazy. That they can’t be trusted. That they are a spectacle. Even when we sympathize with celebrities, we construct barriers. “Of course a former child star has a meltdown,” we tell ourselves. “Anyone would cave under the burden of lifelong fame.” What we forget is that it may be the girl who sits next to you in class struggling to get out of bed every day. I am that girl. I am still there, trudging across campus, sitting behind you in a classroom, raising my hand and engaging in discussion. I show up for my internship on time, manage projects and blend in with my co-workers. Are there some differences? Of course. I have to take medication every day. I have weekly sessions with a psychologist. My life doesn’t look like Hollywood’s depiction of typical college life. But I doubt most of ours do. After a long period of trial-and-error, I’ve discovered what is essential to my stability. And sometimes,those things separate me from my peers. I have a bedtime. I have to severely limit my alcohol consumption. I need routine and structure built into my daily life. So that spontaneous show at the cool new bar on a Thursday night – it’s not happening. Turning down such tempting invitations isn’t easy, particularly when a well meaning acquaintance is pushing for me to just cut loose. It’s often in that very moment when I decide to disclose my illness. The reactions are often less than stellar. “I don’t believe in bipolar disorder.” “Psychiatric drugs don’t help anyone.” “How do you know you really have it? Have you had a brain scan?” “But you won’t have to be on medication forever, right?” This is just a sampling of the negative reactions I’ve gotten. Even my mother tried to convince me that it was just a problem with my thyroid. That is, until she had irrefutable proof—an inevitability with untreated mental illness. Though the reactions to my illness make me sound like an anomaly, I’m not alone. A quarter of Americans experience a mental illness each year. If you’re reading this in a coffee shop right now, look around. That’s one out of every four people there. And with three-fourths of documented mental illness developing by age 24, I’m certainly not the only young person dealing with this. Yet I am met with genuine shock when I admit that I have teetered on the brink of homelessness and made several visits to the psychiatric ward. But my illness, just like diabetes or epilepsy, is treatable. It is something that can be managed. I am one of the lucky ones. More than half of the adults living with a mental illness never receive treatment.
I am still there, trudging across campus, sitting behind you in a classroom, raising my hand and engaging in discussion. I show up for my internship on time, manage projects and blend in with my co-workers.
In stark contrast to wealthy celebrities, we’re exposed to those who live with mental illness who don’t have access to mental health care. Often, lack of treatment leads to a stint in prison or homelessness. Individuals with mental illness are more likely to end up in the prison system than a hospital. While hospitalization carries a heavy stigma, it is often necessary for recovery. But hospitals cost money. I have health insurance, and it covers a small portion of mental health services. Many health insurance plans don’t provide any coverage for such services. That’s if someone is even lucky enough to have insurance in the first place. Paying out of pocket? It’s nearly impossible. And if you need treatment to be able to hold down a job, what then? Social security doesn’t even provide enough to cover basic housing for most individuals. Financial burden aside, many law enforcement officials aren’t properly trained to recognize or handle a mental-health crisis. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, 20 percent of state prisoners are diagnosed with a mental health issue. Even if a prison has a mental-health wing, it’s often not equipped to handle the number of inmates who need it. The crushing cost of treatment becomes a moot point when there aren’t services available. This happens far more than we might think. Even with the services Alachua County offers, it is classified as underserved in mental health matters. So the guy murmuring to himself on the street corner becomes a “crazy:” a mentally unstable person with a criminal record. While it’s easy to believe that a progressive, open-minded person isn’t actively reinforcing stigma, we do it all the time. Stigma is a mark of shame or disgrace. Stigma is setting a particular group of people apart from the rest of society, and in doing so imply they have less worth. Stigma is pervasive. It’s a way to differentiate ourselves from those people. It can seem impossible to imagine that if the guy murmuring incoherently had access to adequate care he could be sitting next to you in lecture, dutifully taking notes. Even when mental health services are accessible, it is often shame that prevents people from seeking treatment. Just admitting you’ve gone to counseling can raise eyebrows. Discussing the details of your disorder, or simply admitting you have one, can lead to the loss of family and friends. Mental illness is isolating enough. The lack of social support could very well be the last straw. We must acknowledge mental illness. Suicide and hospitalization should not be quietly ignored. We must challenge ourselves as individuals and each other as a society to, first, recognize the seriousness of mental illness and second, employ our most empathetic selves. If we are to eliminate stigma and encourage people to seek treatment, we must first and foremost acknowledge that those living with a mental illness are just that—people.