There are advantages and disadvantages about living openly with mental illness. The disadvantages are usually steeped in stigma, which perpetuates in part because people are afraid to be open about mental illness. Out of all the false assumptions that exist, there are probably three that cost us dearly: the belief that we should be treated like children, the belief we don’t know what’s happening to us, and the belief that we aren’t reliable.
False Assumption 1: People with mental illness should be treated like children.
I was talking to a caregiver once when I asked if she had any children. She replied that she was responsible for her brother, who had severe mental illness, so “It’s like having a child.” I was disturbed by this because he was a grown man. He was not a child, just a sick adult.
Some people with mental illness are impulsive or have no appreciation for the consequences of their actions, and these people are usually in an inpatient setting. But if they are grown adults, they should be treated as grown adults. Yes, they have a handicap. No, it doesn’t make them stupid. Yes, they should be treated with their mental illness in consideration. No, they shouldn’t be treated as if they’re incompetent. Unless a court rules otherwise, people with severe mental illness have the right to be treated as legal adults.
False Assumption 2: People with severe mental illness don’t know what’s happening to them.
This belief almost always precedes abuse. If people believe that the person affected by mental illness does not know what is happening to him or her, then it is easier to prey upon their weaknesses.
A case in point was at Richmond State Hospital. A patient went off over being denied cigarettes. Staff put him in restraints. A custodian allegedly pulled out a knife and said “It’s time for the blood-letting.” He complained to staff, who said that he was mentally ill and probably didn’t know what was happening to him. He then complained to me since he knew I used to be a reporter. I went to staff and asked if they were aware of his allegations. They told me to “consider the source.”
Another example was just today. I received a money order in the mail that was obviously bogus. I called the police, and they came to my apartment, which is staffed by people from a community mental health center. The CMHC staff came up to my apartment and watched the entire interaction with the police despite the fact I had full control of the situation and didn’t need their help. It felt belittling and humiliating, like they assumed I didn’t know someone was trying to rip me off.
False Assumption 3: People with mental illness aren’t reliable.
This could be a post in and of itself. People with mental illness are often seen as so impaired by their illness that they can’t discern fact from fiction–even if their illness is relatively minor. For example, I’ve been the victim of two violent crimes–and each time, my psychiatric status was known. The prosecutor refused to file charges both times, saying there wasn’t enough evidence in one case and that “it would be too hard” to file the other case. I’m sure some of you have stories about law enforcement interactions that turned out negatively due to your psychiatric status.
This is a prevalent belief not only in legal situations, but also medical situations. I’ve told the story of Eric before–Eric, an addict being treated at Richmond State Hospital, sought treatment for a ruptured appendix and was told he was making it up in order to get pain pills. As a result, he went for five hours without medical treatment. He brought it up at a unit meeting, and the unit director told him, “Consider what people think when an addict says they’re in pain.” Something similar happened to me–the unit staff refused to fill my inhaler because I might use it to get high–despite the fact I have no history of prescription drug abuse. They admitted this to me when I had an asthma attack.
These misbeliefs can cost us dearly. The only way to fight them is through education, which usually occurs by people observing for themselves what is and is not true about a person with severe mental illness. Sadly, the stigma often keeps people from living openly with mental illness because of these misbeliefs.