Sunday, October 5, 2003

Mental illness the unseen, unspoken disability

A teenager I know has difficulty eating, sleeping, getting to school on time. His intelligence measures in the superior range, but he's angry, remote, and told his best friend he thinks about suicide.

A writer I know struggles to produce voluminous amounts of work when energy is high, brain activity almost frenetic, because she knows the flipside will come at any given moment, the part where she can't get out of bed, answer the phone, or even imagine how she can bear the anguish of another hour.

My mother tells me on the phone that my brother's house is not really his own, that they are illegally "crashing" someone else's turf. She also doesn't remember that I have lived 200 miles away all my adult life or that I have children.

My own list could go on, and I suspect yours could too - the list of personal encounters with mental disabilities.

We throw the concepts around daily as wisecracks and slurs: That person must be nuts, crazy, ready for the loony bin, a padded cell, etc.

We talk about the wacko co-worker who goes on 10-hour shopping binges or keep everyone in stitches with antics at a company party and then seems to sink into near silence for days on end.

We roll our eyes at the neighbor who never comes out of her house, the kid who blurts bizarre remarks, the brother-in-law who loses one terrific job after another.

It's rare to find an American whose life hasn't been personally touched by a mental disorder and yet, while some of the social stigma is dissipating with awareness, most of us still aren't talking or doing enough about the mental health of our families, our colleagues, ourselves.

Mental disabilities - conditions that impair thinking, feeling, behavior - affect one in five of us. Four of the ten most prevalent disabilities worldwide are mental disorders (depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder) and yet, the word "disability" still conjures for many only the types of disability with physical symbols like wheelchairs, guide dogs, or hearing aids.

Mental disabilities are equal opportunity illnesses, having no preferred gender, race, or age group. The pain and dysfunction wrought by a mental disorder can disrupt a person's education, employment, and personal relationships.

Yet, only half of all Americans with mental disorders are receiving treatment.

There have, of course, been improvements in public awareness in the last few years. The Surgeon General's report on mental health in 1999 and President Bush's New Freedom Commission's mental health report this summer have drawn attention to the prevalence (and dire need for treatment) of mental disabilities.

Cincinnati comedian and singer/songwriter Paul Jones is doing his part to raise awareness as well. Diagnosed three years ago at age 36 with bipolar disorder, he now explains how his stand-up comedy routines were longtime therapy. On stage, he would make an audience roar with laughter, then go back to his room and hide under the covers, crushed with mental anguish, until the next performance.

Through his book, Dear World: A Suicide Letter, as well as songs and comedy routines, he is spreading the word that bipolar disorder can be treated.

This week is National Mental Health Awareness Week, with Thursday designated as National Bipolar Disorder Awareness Day. It's a good time for all of us to reflect on the many possible shapes of pain, visible and invisible, and to encourage those near us to seek treatment.

That is the best news about mental disabilities: With treatment, pain can be managed and life savored for the gift that it is.

Contact Deborah Kendrick by phone: 673-4474; fax: 321-6430; e-mail:

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