Living with mental illness

The TED talk of Eleanor Longden

A few days ago I was watching TED talks while enjoying lunch and I came across this wonderful one, by Eleanor Longden. Eleanor started hearing  a voice narrating her life in the third person, when she was in college. She didn’t talk about it for a long time and once she did friends thought it is very alarming and doctors diagnosed her with schizophrenia. While the voices in her head were at first friendly and reassuring, they became hostile as the doctors tried to suppress them with medication and other interventions. Eleanor explains in a great way how she learned to co-exist with the voices and see them as aspects of her own self.

Mental illness in films

I am very glad I watched this talk because I realized that I know nothing about schizophrenia. Sure, I have watched “A beautiful mind“, that is an interpretation of the life of the famous mathematician John Nash, who managed to battle schizophrenia and eventually even win the Nobel Prize. And I have also watched “We need to talk about Kevin“, a film based on a book, where a boy is cold and distant towards his mother and the mother herself seems to suffer with postnatal depression. Many people feel that it is implied that the boy suffers from schizophrenia, but this is not explicitly mentioned in the film nor the book. It is however a depiction of some sort of mental illness. And if you click this link, wikipedia will provide you with a list of films that feature mental illnesses and there is a long list under “schizophrenia” as well. I am planning to watch as many of them as possible in October, as I am starting writing a novel and one of the main characters suffers from paranoid type schizophrenia (I created him after watching the above mentioned TED talk, by the way).

The social stigma

However the depiction of people with mental illness in films and other media (be it books, songs or even TV ads) might not be helping get rid of the social stigma of mental illness. Most people forget that a film is most of the times a work and fiction and even if it is based on a true story, it still is talking about one person. One individual. And as everyone is different, everyone should be accepted for who they are, with their individual characteristics. Not all schizophrenics are mathematical geniuses, not all schizophrenics are violent and are plotting your death. The same goes for any other mental illness as well of course! Generalizations do not help anyone.

What people keep forgetting is the fact that everyone might suffer from a mental illness and most people do at some stage of their life. Depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, ADHD are way too common in today’s societies, especially in the developed countries. Therefore, being understanding, compassionate and supportive towards mental illness sufferers is like doing ourselves and society a favor. I sincerely thought that there would be no need to write such things in 2013, but just googling “mental illness stigma” brought up so many result with so many ugly stories of discrimination. Just check out this list and read a few of the articles.

Of course, mental illness entails a lot of challenges. And it affects not only the patients but also their families. Negating the issue is not the solution. What we need to do -just like in the case of homophobia, racism and sexism- is to understand that the fact that some people are different does not make them less of a person and it definitely does not mean that they do not have equal rights. What I want to say is that if you want to live in a world where your ADD or schizophrenic future child will be respected and supported instead of bullied, and where you will be able to proudly join support groups and visit a therapist without lying to your family that you are going to a “meeting”, you need to start speaking up against mental illness stigma now. We all need to.

Bobby Baker's visual diary

Bobby Baker’s visual diary

Bobby Baker’s visual diary

On a brighter note, today I discovered this great article on Brain Pickings, talking about the drawings that artist Bobby Baker did on a daily basis, as a way to deal with her mental illness and cancer. You can find an audio slide show with the artist describing the paintings and the story behind them here. Truly inspirational and the paintings are beautiful even outside their context. It is great to see how they change as the artist’s well-being and health are getting better and better. It is for good reason that art therapy plays such an important role in the treatment of mental illness. Expressing feelings through words may be extremely difficult for some people, whether they have mental issues or not. Music, painting, collages, dance are all non-verbal ways of expressing emotions and letting steam off. Bottling up anger, desperation, anxiety, fears significantly slows down recovery and art is a powerful tool of expression, available to everyone.

I guess what I am trying to say with this post is a nutshell is:

  • be nice
  • art is good
Bobby Baker's visual diary

Bobby Baker’s visual diary

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