Mental illness is one of those subjects that we find it difficult to talk about in polite society. It's right up there with religion and politics; things that are important, but which can be the spark for too many arguments for some people.
The fact that we don't talk about mental illness makes it all the more difficult to understand. Unless you're a direct sufferer, it's almost impossible to relate to how someone with a chronic disorder of the mind feels. They may feel they have to hide their suffering from others in a way you just don't have to with physical health problems.
The only way to break down this wall is to talk about mental health – and to understand its many misconceptions. It's too easy to assume things about those with these conditions, and no one is talking about them enough to remove the myths.
So let's crack on and start tearing down some walls. When asked the one misconception that most bothered them about how their illness is viewed, this is what sufferers had to say…
The Schizophrenia Sufferer: “I'm not a psychopath, and I'm not crazy.”
Schizophrenia is one of the most stigmatized of mental health conditions. Some people still throw around words like “crazy” or “lunatic” without having any idea what they're talking about.
“One of the worst things is people not understanding the difference between psychopathy and schizophrenia,” says Melanie, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 19. “You see headlines like ‘crazy psycho' and it's just annoying, as they're very different. Psychopathy is a personality disorder that makes people cold and calculating. I just have wonky brain chemistry – I'm not a bad person the way a psychopath would be.”
While at its most extreme end of the spectrum the disorder can result in people doing outlandish things, for most, schizophrenia is a disorder they live with. “I have a job,” she shrugs, “and a normal life – you do learn the recognize the difference with the delusions and hallucinations. They feel different. If someone is left untreated then yes, it can be a problem, but most of us function just fine.”
The Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Sufferer: “This illness isn't a fun personality quirk.”
Say someone likes to arrange their pencils in a specific way – someone will quickly say that's “so OCD“. We now treat OCD as a lighthearted personality quirk with examples in pop culture – such as Monica Gellar in Friends – confirming this.
“My OCD is hell,” says Helen, who had OCD for years before being formally diagnosed when she was 29. “It's a relentless parade of the worst things imaginable. I don't get anxious about pencils being in the wrong order – though that can be a trigger – I constantly obsess about whether I am going to kill someone by accident or catching a horrible disease. It's this constant, pervasive thought process that I can't control.”
One of the worst aspects of OCD is that the sufferer knows they are being unreasonable. “Of course I know it's stupid to think I have four different kinds of cancer and am going to catch Avian flu,” she laughs self-deprecatingly. “That's the problem – I know it's irrational. I know it's ridiculous. But I still can't shake the fear of it; it feels real. And it's worse because my brain is constantly insisting the opposite – it's like a constant inner argument.”
In fact, if someone has obsessive behavior but doesn't realize they are being unreasonable, it's a whole different disorder: Obsessive Compulsive Personality Disorder. “Mine is an illness,” Helen continues, “not a personality aspect and I can't help it – so stop finding the idea of it funny.”
The Bipolar Type II Sufferer: “You don't have to treat me like I am made of glass.”
BiPolar Type II was originally referred to as “manic depression”, a phrase that entered general language and is still tainting sufferers. “People think I am unstable,” says James, who was diagnosed when he was 32 after years of suffering. “They think they can say something wrong to me and it will trip off an episode, like I can't handle the smallest of problems. I can – most episodes have no trigger,” he continues, “and in fact, most are so mild the only person who knows they are happening is me.”
Characterized by impulsive behavior and periods of extreme highs and lows of emotion, BiPolar is a rollercoaster that you can't get off. “But it doesn't influence everything I am,” James says, “it's part of me, yes, but I'm still a person with the same wants and desires as everyone else. I'm not crazy and I'm not unstable. The deeper you get into diagnosis and treatment the better you become at recognizing an episode beginning – and most of the time, you can take evasive action.”
The Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Sufferer: “Yes, my illness is real.”
There is some argument over whether ADHD is a mental illness in the classic sense (as in unbalanced brain chemistry) or a neurodevelopmental disorder. But in society, we treat them much the same way anyway, so it's worth examining.
“People think ADHD is 10-year-olds who are a bit hyper,” says Chris, diagnosed when he was 27 – yes, that's 27 years old. “And there are problems there, don't get me wrong. Kids are being misdiagnosed when they're just excitable. But people think ADHD doesn't exist for adults, but it does – and it can destroy your life.”
Chris struggles to hold down a job due to his poor short-term memory and attention problems. “You can tell me one thing one minute and I will have forgotten it the next. I can't retain short-term information, though my long-term memory is good. It's like my head is fizzing all the time – every single task is a nightmare in fighting to keep myself focused on the right thing.”
So the next time you hear a stereotype about these illnesses, think a little deeper about the realities that sufferers go through.