A shift is taking place among the mental health population and society is beginning to take notice. In the Sunday Times May 11 edition, an article by Gabriella Glasser discusses the Mad Pride movement; an attempt by those who feel stigmatized by mental illness to reclaim the concept of madness, very much the same way that the Gay Pride movement has reclaimed the concept of queerness.
Madness has historically been a reason for isolation, cruelty and even death for those who suffered from unknown or misunderstood conditions we now know as psychiatrically based, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (manic-depression).
We’ve come a long way in understanding these conditions, rendering once medically accepted procedures such as lobotomy and antiquated electro-shock therapies (EST) illegal. Pharmaceutical companies have developed increasingly effective medications to treat even the most stubborn forms of psychiatric illness.
If I may be allowed to do a bit of reclaiming of my own, where we still have a long way to go is in the misinformation, attitudes and prejudices of society toward those who are mad. Further and more importantly, mad people should be but are not often protected by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Discrimination is alive and well in the workplace, on college campuses and in the mental health delivery system itself.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 5.7 million Americans over the age of 18 have the mood disorder called bipolar illness. Another 2.4 million are classified as schizophrenia, which is considered a thought disorder. A few; a very few, are beginning to come out of the closet, as gays have done in record numbers in recent years. In so doing, they hope to tell the world that their disability is a part of who they are and that despite it, they can lead productive and even inspiring lives.
The idea of madness and living an inspiring life is not a new idea. Those of us who have been inspired by the likes of Beethoven and Van Gogh (bipolar “guesses”), or Jack Kerouac (schizophrenic), probably have learned or guessed that their madness contributed to their genius.
The mad pride movement is exciting in that it attempts to demystify mental illness, not just among the talented and gifted but among regular people who are living among us productively, creatively and now, just beginning to do so with pride and dignity as well.
One such person is Elyn Saks, a University of Southern California law professor who has learned to live with and accept her schizophrenic illness and psychosis. Her memoir The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness was only published after Ms. Saks received tenure at USC. Even in an academic setting, where one could assume people are better educated about mental illness, Dr. Saks felt she had to keep quiet until she was guaranteed a place in academia.
Mad pride parades and events are a good start toward embracing the uniqueness and fundamental humanness of people with mental illness, certainly, but additionally society must face the facts. The sheer numbers of people diagnosed with mental illness means that we encounter many people throughout our lives who may not be “normal” psychologically.
As a society, we have to begin to understand mental illness as a medical situation with psychological and social manifestations. Even cancer has those implications. The fear that accompanies perceptions of mental illness are thus ingrained because we fail to see that the mind, as creative and essential to human survival as it may be, can fail us in very much the same way as a kidney or a heart; except that it cannot be replaced. It must be maintained, nurtured and respected. For some, drugs do wonders in achieving this aim. For others, as the mad pride movement illustrates, seeking normalization through drug therapy feels intrusive if not altogether invasive. Just as some people choose not to treat a tumor with radiation, some people with mental illness choose alternatives to chemicals through a balanced and conscious life, exercise, diet and talk therapy.
Reclaiming one’s madness is a form of taking control. Ironically, taking control of one’s life is perhaps the sanest thing anyone can do.