What, Really, is Mental Illness?

by Sarah Hancock

When people are first diagnosed with a mental illness, everything around them shatters. Suddenly they picture themselves tied up in a straitjacket and locked away in some asylum. They think, Is that who I really am?

It feels as though every single goal they ever dreamed of achieving is ripped away, handing them a death sentence instead.

No, I take that back. Having a mental illness can be worse than a death sentence. Here's why.

When you think about mental illness, what are the first things that come to mind? Straitjackets, mumbling incessantly, heinous murderers -- the list goes on and on, none of it flattering. Why is that? Because the public at large only takes their information about mental illness from what they see on TV or in the movies.
Let's face it. Movies, news, television shows and any other media could never make money broadcasting stories about everyday people living boring lives. Instead the media turn their attention to things either positively amazing or downright horrific. Average doesn't sell.

Consequently, the general public gains all information about mental illness from either positively amazing people (like John Forbes Nash, Jr. a mathematician who received the Nobel for Economic Sciences in 1994, diagnosed with schizophrenia) or by heinous murderers diagnosed with mental illness. I'd give you an example but you can probably already think of several on your own.

If you believed the media, people who have a mental illness just don't fall in the gray area between amazing and horrific. In that respect they're like Mormons. You rarely hear about everyday Mormons on the news. But the minute a member of the Church does something bad, the news headlines read, "Mormon Steals Car!"

However, I bet that your preconceived notions about mental illness are just as erroneous as the average nonmember's understanding of what members of the Church truly believe. Did I just say that?
Many people think that schizophrenics are violent. However, evidence suggests that "people with psychotic symptoms account for only 5 percent of violent crime, and some estimate the number closer to 1 percent. In fact, people living with schizophrenia are in greater danger of being victimized by both violent and non-violent crimes than the general population." Surprised?

Mental illness is simply misunderstood, yet it's something that affects everyone in one way or another. If you think you don't know anyone with mental illness, you're wrong. I promise!

According to the National Alliant for the Mentally Ill (NAMI), "One in four adults -- approximately 57.7 million Americans -- experience a mental health disorder in a given year. One in 17 lives with a serious mental illness such as schizophrenia, major depression or bipolar disorder and about one in 10 children live with a serious mental or emotional disorder."

The thing is, no one talks about it. Well, hopefully that is about to change.

I can be quite verbal about my experience with mental illness. I'll be the first to admit many people don't feel comfortable about my candidness, but I am candid for a reason. When I was diagnosed and drudging through the worst symptoms I'd ever experienced, I felt alone. What made matters worse was no one wanted to talk about it. People felt uncomfortable when I brought it up. I felt completely alienated.
I never want anyone else to feel like that. So, sometimes if there is a moment in class where I feel my experience with mental illness taught me something I share it, regardless.

One Sunday after sharing such an experience a sister came up to me after class in tears because she'd felt all alone and didn't know where to go to talk to about her depression. She was grateful I said something, enabling her to recognize she wasn't alone. She swore me to secrecy, not wanting anyone else to know about her struggle.

Ironically, a sister who'd sat next to this first sister also approached me afterwards, asking to talk to me more about her depression while swearing me to secrecy. She, too, didn't want anyone to think less of her for struggling with depression. Two sisters sitting next to each other were struggling with the desperate symptoms of depression, yet both were unable to support or console one another because of the embarrassment of being labeled as mentally ill.

Feeling isolated in a room full of people can be worse than a death sentence.
So what can you do about it? Be willing to talk. I'm not saying you have to shout it from the rooftops, nor am I saying that being glib about details is always appropriate. I am saying that in order for the general public to become savvier about mental illness, we need to start talking about it.

Helping people become more aware of mental illness will help their understanding to grow. Only then will the general public realize people with mental illness are just everyday people. After all, one fourth of the general public already knows that since they have a mental illness!

Perhaps its someone you are sitting next to at church or someone you share a cubicle with at work. Perhaps someone you love needs your support and you don't even know how to give it. If we all start talking about mental illness a little more, everyone will realize no one is alone.

Be wise in sharing things with others. You'll be surprised at how many people understand because they've been there too. So, back to the original question: What is mental illness? Start talking and asking questions from sources outside the sensationalized media, and you'll find the real answer.

Identity and Mental Illness: Not, What I Am, but Who I Am
by Sarah Hancock
The other day I went to a service project as the passenger in my friend’s car. When we pulled into the parking lot, a baby blue, vintage Volkswagen bug pulled beside us and parked. My friend turned to me and said, “That’s my brother. He’s schizophrenic.” I stared at her for a moment, collecting my wits, and asked, “What’s his name?”
Gee. How many of us have done that? Some of you may ask, what? Done what? Introduced someone as their diagnosis. Come on now, we can all sheepishly admit we have.  So this is my promise to you: I won't do it any more.
I share this incident in an effort to plead with you to reevaluate how you interact with and think about people who have mental illness. For those who have mental illness, I share this as a plea to you to reevaluate how you think about yourself.
Would you ever introduce a friend to your “cancerous sister”? Would you introduce your coworker to the diabetic? Nope. Or at least, I hope not. Don’t you think it’s inappropriate to disclose someone’s medical history? So why do it with mental illness? Why the double standard? Yet people do it all the time. Suddenly gossip morphs into necessary knowledge. A little bit of the natural man coming to the surface? Okay. Maybe it’s just human nature to fill in the details, but what details are really necessary?
There are three primary reasons I think that you shouldn’t refer to someone as their diagnosis or even tell others about the diagnosis, especially when mental health is involved. First, it doesn’t allow a new person the opportunity to meet a person without the looming negative stigma associated with mental illness. Second, the more a person with mental illness is referred to by their illness, the more people treat them as ill. Third, when people are constantly referred to as their diagnosis, it leads them to believe all they are is the diagnosis.
When I was first diagnosed and struggling through the depths of my symptoms, I often sat down at meetings where people spontaneously stood up and moved. At first I honestly thought they had to make a last minute trip to the restroom. Perhaps many of them did.
But I will never forget the day when I sat down next to a young woman who got up and moved to the row behind me. When questioned by her new neighbor about the sudden spontaneous space shuffle, the young women loudly whispered, “I can’t sit next to her. Didn’t you know she’s schizophrenic and gets shock treatments?”
Tears filled my eyes. I sat there waiting for the meeting to start while staring at the teary, shimmering pattern on my skirt, all while wondering if that’s all they saw in me. As time passed, I wondered if that was all everyone saw in me.
There were many dark and dreary moments where that’s all I saw in myself. Lost was the girl who loved to write and sing at the top of her lungs to the car radio. Lost was the woman who’d been a college leadership trainer, camp counselor, editor and oral historian. Lost was the trilingual returned missionary.
Lost was the girl who loved expressing herself with ceramics, the one who frequently enjoyed laughing so hard her face and stomach hurt. Lost was the girl who planned the parties and group dates. Lost, the girl who excelled academically. Sometimes I wonder if I would have lost sight of all of those things had more people seen me for those qualities, rather than seen me as a scary mentally ill person.
You may think my perspective is skewed. Surely my illness affected how I perceived the reaction of others. Maybe it was all in my mind. A figment of my imagination. A result of the illness. I wish it were.
I’ve been to social activities where people I didn’t even know actually asked me what it was like to have shock treatments and to hear voices. Their tone made me feel like some sort of freak show.
Often I discussed it with a trusted friend, asking her if she’d heard it. Reality testing. She always did. There were times in my life where it got me down; now I’ve gotten used to it. When a person asks me such questions one-on-one, truly wanting to learn, it’s a decidedly different circumstance — one that I welcome.
I guess my question is: When you know someone has a mental illness, do you further perpetuate the negative stigma by referring to them as their illness? Or do you refer to them by their characteristics, qualities and talents? If the only thing you can see is the illness, you need to look deeper.  
If you have been diagnosed with a mental illness and it’s all you can see or who you’ve become, take a step back and remember. Remember who you once were, what you liked to do, where you liked to go. Revisit a favorite thing about yourself.
Take a moment to enjoy an old talent you’ve shelved while struggling to take care of your symptoms. Get out of your head and enjoy something you hold dear. I know it may feel awkward at first since you haven’t done it in so long, but those lost qualities and talents are still a very important part of who you really are. You are you; you are not your diagnosis!
If you love, serve, or work with someone who has a diagnosis, take a moment to evaluate how you talk about him with others. Work to recognize every aspect of his personality.
Work to point out his strengths. Work to focus on the fact that she is child of a loving Heavenly Father who allowed her to have this illness not as a punishment but rather as witness of an abiding confidence God has in her. He knows all things, including her true, inner strength and potential. Remind your loved one of this truth.
One wise woman (not me!) diagnosed with a mental illness explained it quite simply by saying, “It is something that I live with, that I attempt to circumnavigate around, but it is not Who I Am.”
Please, stand with me and take the pledge. We will stand together and recognize people for who they truly are, sons and daughters of a living and loving God.


About Sarah Hancock
Sarah Hancock is currently in her final year of studies at San Diego State University's Rehabilitation Counseling Program (just voted 9th in the Nation by U.S. News & World Report) with a psychiatric emphasis.  A portion of her internship was spent as the Coordinator of Disability Services Office for Alliant International University's San Diego and Irvine Campuses.
Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about Psychiatric Recovery and teaching others how to strengthen their "Recovery Toolbox." Sarah finds comfort in writing, having completed more than 29 journal volumes. She teaches occasional recovery workshops using principles she learned from Recovery Innovations.
Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in the San Diego area with her husband. They have four teenage children.

She currently loves serving as Young Women secretary and ward missionary.