Sunday, February 17, 2008

Not All Mentally Ill People Are Killers, But...

Not All Mentally Ill People Are Killers, But...

For the past several days, I have been waiting with baited breath to hear what NIU shooter Steve Kazmierczak's diagnosis was. Every time someone with Bipolar Disorder goes on a killing spree, I more than cringe. How do mentally ill people cross the threshold between right and wrong, and turn into murderers? I don't think anyone fully knows the answer. Obviously, an unwillingness or failure to take one's medication has a lot to do with it, and yet I lived my life as a Bipolar sufferer for years without proper medication, and I never dreamed up plans to off people. All this to say - nobody really knows.

But as I was reading this article about Kazmierczak yesterday, one sentence jumped out and slapped in the face, and as I write this book on mental illness, I will return to the article for future notes.
Apparently, right after high school, Kazmierczak's parents sent him to a group home because he was "unruly" and refused to take his medication. The former house manager had this to say about him:
"He never wanted to identify with being mentally ill," she said. "That was part of the problem."

If you don't suffer with a mental illness, don't know someone who does (openly, anyway), or you don't work in the mental health field, then it's easy to miss the enormous implications in such a short, simple sentence.
I worked in the mental health field for a few years, prior to my own diagnosis. (I had been diagnosed with depression, but nothing else.) The people I worked with were great people who deeply cared about those we served, and their intentions were always good. However, one thing that was constantly drilled into my head was that we were NOT to call any of the employees at the workshop "mentally ill people." They were to be called "individuals with mental illness."
The idea was that our employees ought to be identified as individuals, not as a disease, and I understand the mentality, and bought into it the entire time I worked there, and beyond.

But now, a few years removed from that job, with a deeper diagnosis of my own, I see things in a new light.
Lucky me, I have inherited a number of things from my mother's side of the family. Diabetes and high blood pressure, just to name a couple.
In doctor's offices, magazines, in the media, among medical professionals, I am referred to as:

I am called these things, and never insulted by them, nor do I define myself by them. It is a reality in my life, that I have these things, that they play a big role in my daily living, and if I don't keep up with them, they will eventually kill me.
I am rarely called "mentally ill" in a formal setting. It's as though mental illness is weirder and scarier than other illnesses. And yet, if you were to imply that to a doctor or a mental health professional, they would lambaste you for thinking such a thing.
Is anyone else confused?

Can somebody tell me why my mental illness should be considered any different?

If the idea is to make the mentally ill feel more normal, forget it, we're failing miserably. Instead of helping them to define themselves by a means apart from their diagnoses, we are inadvertantly telling them -- AND the world -- that mental illness is NOT an illness, but a sentence, or a negative personality trait. By addressing it abnormally, we are, in turn, making it more and more abnormal to society.
Look at this quote again:
"He never wanted to identify with being mentally ill," she said. "That was part of the problem."

Mental illness is an illness of the brain, just like Diabetes is a disease of the pancreas, and Heart Disease is a disease of the heart, and Polycystic Kidney Disease is a disease of the kidneys. And the main thing they all have in common is that if individuals don't identify with them -- in other words, make them their own and acknowledge it not only exists but has to be tackled -- they will eventually kill them.
And, unfortunately, in the case of brain illness... it could potentially kill others.

We need to stop doing the world a disservice by trying to pretend that mental illness is somehow set apart, and make it part of the norm.
Take your heart pills. Take your brain pills. Test your blood sugar. Do what you have to do.
Such a disease can only define you if you constantly run from it, and sink further and further into sickness as a result.

We need to grow up and claim what is ours.



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