In 1990 U.S. Congress established the first week of October as Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) in recognition of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ efforts to raise awareness for mental illness. This year between October 2nd through the 8th, people from all over will stand together to bring a collective consciousness to this issue that is often misunderstood.
MIAW is especially important this year as severe budget cuts threaten mental health services in many communities around the country. People who do not receive treatment often end up in hospitals, shelters, in jail, or even dead. Most importantly, this is a week where we fight stigma for serious mental illnesses such as major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
This is a cause that is very close to my heart because I have been diagnosed and living with bipolar disorder for nearly thirteen years. Everyone experiences their mental illness in a different way, and mine has had its bumpy moments, peppered by even harsher moments, and then thankfully capped by growth. I do know that I am among the lucky ones who have an incredible support system. I have always had ample health insurance and the financial means to pay those premiums. I have a loving family with endless patience in helping me heal when things take their down turns, and I am blessed with friends who have made me a part of their lives even when I am a less than desirable companion. I understand that not everyone is fortunate enough to have this kind of endless support. This is my opportunity to stand up and remind people that everyone deserves the kind of backing I have had in my life.
I read somewhere today that the only reason that people like me support Mental Illness Awareness Week is to drum up sympathy for myself, since I am clearly one part of the 25% of people who have a diagnosable mental disorder who are considered the “worried-well.” This phrase displeases me in the worst way. Anyone who has ever experienced a bout of depression so awful that they contemplate no longer living at all understands all too well the “worry.” Those of us who manage to come out of it a little better and tell our story are not any more “well.” To undermine the cycle of pain and recovery by using the demeaning moniker is a disservice to everyone. We are not the “worried-well.” We are the survivors. We have seen hell and have returned to life. We know pain yet live with the faith that things will get better, and I am living proof.
I am proof that treatment works. Drug therapies work, and talk therapy works. Together, they have saved my life. The thought that there are people out there who do not have access to these necessities is deplorable to me. The idea that communities are cutting the necessary funding to maintain basic mental health care is unacceptable.
I have been unfortunate enough to experience the ultimate price of mental illness, and that is the loss of life by suicide. I lost my younger brother at the age of eighteen when he took his own life. I will spend the rest of my life fighting for the opportunity to stop just one person from ever leaving the world in that way again; to stop just one family from feeling the pain of loss that we felt when we lost my brother.
Am I attempting to drum up sympathy for myself? Not at all. I don’t want your sympathy. I want your support. I want you to stand beside me and say enough is enough. Do the thousands of seriously mentally ill people locked up in jail or in a psychiatric ward of a hospital deserve our utmost support? Yes they do, but so do the so-called “worried-well” who very well could be two moments away from being there themselves. If you know anything about mental illness at all, you know that things can change in an instant.
So, take my hand and stand up with me this week in supporting Mental Health Awareness Week. Visit the National Alliance on Mental Illness (http://www.nami.org/) to see how you can help. Together we will make it better. Lives depend on it.