I remember the first time I encountered it.
I was young, maybe 8 or 9, and it happened shortly after my best friend’s father shot himself in the woods outside of his home. As you can imagine, this was a horrible, terribly confusing experience, especially at a time when these kinds of things weren’t discussed. I can still remember the look on my friend’s face when he told me the truth.
It happened again in high school, this time when another friend pushed his love affair with drugs a bridge too far, leading to a psychotic episode that has never fully resolved. My heart still breaks for the person I knew before his life changed forever -- smart, sharply irreverent, endlessly curious about the world and his place in it. We lost a good man on the altar of human suffering.
In both of these sad situations, and in many similar instances in between, I have seen the reality of mental illness cruelly played out in the forum of public opinion:
“His father was kind of strange anyway”
“Wow, he’s really crazy now”
And, my personal favorite, “She’s so nuts; I would never want to be her!”
I’m sure you have a few of your own to add to this pile. Not pretty.
The Power of Fear
So, all of this begs the questions: Why is this? How did it get this way? Why aren’t we more enlightened on the issue of mental illness than we are?
I have a few thoughts.
First, we are a deeply social species, and we all want to be part of the tribe. Anything that makes us different, unlovable, “less than,” or unpopular risks our membership in the group -- and nobody wants to be left out.
This is a kind of “mean girls” view of this dynamic, although, to be fair, this is not exclusive to women. The effects of shame, alienation, and shunning are everywhere, and we all bear responsibility for doing our share to be inclusive.
Second, we are all, more or less, instinctually fearful of the “other,” whether he or she is of another race, ethnicity or sexual orientation, or -- in the darker regions of our psyches -- someone we recognize in ourselves.
( Just as an editorial aside, this is what I believe drives the genre of modern horror films that scares and fascinates us. Sigmund Freud, the genius father of psychoanalysis, was among the first to lay this out for what it is: a fear of our dark parts that leads us to self-protectively “project” shame, ridicule, and ruthless judgment as a defense against feeling afraid and inadequate. His analysis is made for our times as we struggle with the growing pains of becoming an increasingly diverse society.)
So what’s the solution to all of this? Another brief story, if you don’t mind.
Gordon Derner, the maverick dean of my Ph.D. program, made it a point to let all first-year doctoral students know that, in his opinion, there was no distinction between patients and therapists. To him, we are all broken in one way or another, a seemingly grim observation mitigated by his abiding optimism that everyone could be healed through the grace of human relationships.
He was channeling his own mentor, Harry Stack Sullivan, the brilliant and courageous denizen of interpersonal psychoanalysis who made it his life’s mission to treat all people with respect, compassion, and dignity.
The bottom line: Stigma about feeling bad, “having issues,” or just plain being unhappy is something that defines us all. It’s just what it means to be human.
The sooner we can accept, with love and compassion, this reality in ourselves and others, the sooner we can help one another get what we all need. Let’s get on with it.
Paul Simeone, Ph.D., is vice president of Mental and Behavioral Health at Lee Health. Simeone has more than 30 years’ experience in mental and behavioral health as an educator, administrator, and practicing clinical psychologist. Simeone has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and master’s degree in school psychology from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York, and a master’s degree in psychology from Mount Holyoke College near Springfield, Mass.
Lee Health Behavioral Health Services:
Discover how important you are
Lee Health Behavioral Health Services – an outpatient facility -- provides friendly and compassionate psychiatric and counseling services along with plenty of other mental health resources. We evaluate your condition, manage your medication, and implement a plan to help you feel better. You will find a trained therapist who is right for you – a caring and attentive person who will connect with you and empower you to tackle your problems. For more information or to schedule an appontment please call 239-343-9180.
We treat conditions such as:
- Anxiety disorders
- Personality disorders
- Mood disorders
- Postpartum depression