This is Mental Illness Awareness Week.
Here at Coming Out Crazy every week is Mental Illness and Mental Health Awareness Week.
If you're like me, every day is "mental illness awareness day." I am reminded of my psychiatric diagnosis and my 49 year psychiatric history when I take my 200 mg of Carbamazepine every morning and again every night.
But, at the same time, I consider myself to be mentally healthy – in Recovery – most of the time. (There are many different perspectives on Recovery and mental health and they vary vastly. Hope must be a constant. Hope is one of the primary foundations of Recovey.)
Then there are those moments of madness. I believe we all have them. After all, and I've said this before, I am convinced we're all Next to Normal. Even if we try not to show it or deny it.
The point is, I'm human. Over the last two weeks, since my husband was rushed to hospital and I came down with a wretched fever and flu the day after he came home – which I'm still fighting – things are feeling a little more challenging than usual for me.
We're fine. My husband's fine. I'm reasonably fine. It's just been one of those rocky stretches. And wouldn't you know... my psychiatrist Dr. Bob is on vacation. In France somewhere. Provence, I think.
So I'm working without a net. When I'm writing here, I want to give you intriguing ideas to think about. That's why I'm musing about "Mental Illness Awareness Week" and what it really means. What it accomplishes. I'm really confused.
There's so much in life these days that's confusing. Although I don't live with depression, I can understand why our environment can seem really overwhelming and depressing.
On Monday, I received a book in the mail called "Depression is Contagious" by U.S. psychologist and hypnotist Michael D. Yapko.
I laughed when I saw the title. It's a clever marketing ploy. It's may even sell books. But is it furthering knowledge and awareness? Or promoting hypnotism as a treatment for depression? On the other hand, maybe hypnotism works for you. I tried it once and it didn't do a thing for me. But that's just me.
The title also reminded me of the olden days when mental institutions were built out in what was then "the countryside" in the 1800s, so the "normal" citizenry, it was assumed, wouldn't be victims of the contagion thought to exist within its walls.
So they wouldn't catch whatever madness infected the "inmates" – like the flu. This was rumoured to be true of two of Ontario's Provincial Lunatic Asylums – The Toronto Lunatic Asylum on Queen Street West built in 1850 (now the site of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) and Lakeshore Psychiatric in Mimico, now Etobicoke in southwest Toronto, built in 1871. That latter mental hospital is now the site of Humber College where my husband teaches.
That was the thinking back then. Mental illnesses or Madness was like the flu. Get too close and you can catch it.
That was, I suppose, another way to explain the unexplainable. To talk about what was never talked about. The fear people harboured about mental illnesses and madness. Ignorance and Fear. The same fears and ignorance that Mental Illness Awareness Weeks are trying to combat.
Through education. But what does that mean? Does that mean that the media is doing the educating about people, like me, who live with psychiatric diagnoses and are in recovery?
How much do you read in the mainstream media about mental health recovery?
Think about it. Do you ever read good stories about people overcoming serious mental illnesses and going on to live rich and meaningful lives? They do, you know. Lots of people. But too often, they don't live their lives out loud like I do.
You cannot catch depression like the flu. Depression can be caused by many, many things. It's still a mystery because every person's depression is specific to him or her. It's individual. But to the best of my knowledge, depression isn't a bacteria or a virus. It's not spread like a bacterial infection or a viral infection. Through sneezing. Or coughing. However, you can be affected by your environment, and with the "viral nature" of digital telecommunications, the title of Yapko's book – "Depression is Contagious" – a metaphor at best, I suppose, may have some meaning.
But, I think it's tenuous. We all have good days and bad days. Days that make us feel blue. That's not necessarily "clinical depression." Depression can be a very serious emotional disorder. Life-threatening.
Yapko's title is more a marketer's ploy than a medical truism. I don't like it. I think it's misleadling.
Just like I think "Mental Illness Awareness Week" is misleading. I don't know how educational it is and I question its validity when mental health and mental illnesses, like physical health and physical illnesses are a life-long, permanent concern for all of us, all the time.
We cannot be healthy physically if we're not healthy mentally and emotionally.
What does "Mental Illness Awareness Week" mean? What does it do? Who is it in aid of? Who benefits from it.
Is it a promotion for psychiatrists? Many really care about their patients, but many others have lost their way and succumbed to the pharmacological, biochemical approach to treatment. They don't practice "talking therapies" anymore. And too many people want quick fixes. Demand them. I am highly skeptical about this, as you know. We're all different and we need to be treated as individuals. We need to work at our mental health and fitness, just like we need to work at our physical health and fitness.
(Have a look at the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario pro-active approach to mental and emotional fitness. Check Up from The Neck Up. It's never too late. Contact Kim Umbach at firstname.lastname@example.org)
I wonder. Is Mental Illness Awareness Week a way to help people overcome their denial and face their own personal issues and seek whatever help they need, be it psychiatric, psychological, peer support, community mental health, hypnotism or an empathetic ear? Someone who knows how to listen actively. Perhaps it's good supportive housing and employers willing to give people with psychiatric histories a chance to work, develop skills, achieve and develop the self-esteem and confidence that comes from real accomplishment.
Maybe it's more humane working environments and more empathy in those who don't live with mental illnesses. Maybe it's a wake-up call that it's time for psychiatrists to re-examine what they're teaching medical students about psychiatry. About those of us deemed to have emotional issues that affect our thinking and our behaviour, our minds.
I keep on writing here because I want to see change. I believe change is possible. I know it's possible. I've seen it in my lifetime. I remember when you never ever read the word "psychiatrist" in any newspaper or magazine. Psychiatry was like black magic. Maybe it still is, but I believe that a lot of what psychiatrists have learned and are still learning and trying to do can change and improve our collective mental and emotional health. I believe that psychiatrists who listen and practice psychotherapy and see beyond neurosciences to the individuals they attempt to help, are creating important changes.
And there are all kinds of other routes to mental and emotional health, too. Everyone needs to be open-minded and educated.
Physcians need to be educated just as much as the media and all of us. Medical practitioners need to accept that emotional and mental illnesses and health are not a "them" and "us" duality. We're all in this together. And talking is the key. Not only talking therapy, but talking out loud and talking to each other.
Honestly. Candidly. Without arrogance. With humility.
That's education. That's why I call this blog "Coming Out Crazy" and because "coming out' with who we are and how we feel and what we see and perceive is all valid and part of the educational process.
Medications are just tools. Minor tools, if you ask me. Useful at times. But there's more you must do to heal. You need to talk.
You need to have your medications very carefully monitored if you take them. Trust me. I lost my only kidney and ended up on dialysis and with a transplant because a psychiatrist I was actually seeing regularly neglected to monitor my Lithium levels.
It doesn't matter what "diagnostic label" you have. Don't allow anyone to define who you are. Don't internalize a label and believe that it changes who you are. It doesn't. Unless you allow it to.
Over my lifetime - and I'll be 61 in less than two weeks - I've spent months and months and months as a psychiatric in-patient in four different Toronto psychiatric hospital wards. My family, primarily my mother, instilled in me a basic belief that I was "me" first. That I was talented, ambitious and smart, even if I was also histrionic and emotional and even, at time, manic and psychotic.
I was never just my 'illness" or "disorder". I was me.
That's what Mental Illness Awareness Week should be about, I believe. About how special we all are.
You are not your "illness" - you are you! Multifaceted. With so many qualities and characteristics that make you the unique individual you are. You are special. You have potential. And you must believe that. That's recovery, that's hopeful. That's your responsibility. That's self-determination.
No matter what any psychiatrist tells you. I've had so many diagnoses - schizophrenia, catatonic schizophrenia, manic depression, bipolar, hypomania.
They are just one small part of me. I'm also energetic and passionate and excitable and larger than life.
As for labels, I accept only two for myself.
One is "human" and the other is my name - Sandra Lee Naiman, qualified by my date of birth. Just in case there's another "human" named "Sandra Lee Naiman" kicking around. :)
You're human. Now then, besides any "diagnostic" label you've been given, ask yourself, who am I?
And have some fun considering all the intriguing qualities you have, your skills, your talents, your abilities, your hobbies, your passions, your interests. All those special uniquenesses of yours that have nothing to do with any mental illness.
Everything about you that makes you, you. The only "you" in the whole world. The only "you" who's ever lived. How remarkable you are.