Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of November 24, 2003
Define, then delete the stigma
Don't confuse mental illness with a psychopath's evil.
By JANET KNUDSEN
Special to the WCR
In the news: the worst serial killer on record, the Green River killer, cuts a deal with U.S. attorneys and avoids the death penalty in return for his admission of guilt.
In the news: a mother leaves her children in a car, puts it in gear, and watches as the vehicle and her children plunge into a lake.
In the news: child pornography reaches new levels of aberration, as infants - not even one year old - are filmed or photographed while being sexually abused.
Hi. My name is Janet and I am diagnosed with manic depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety attacks. In 1990, I had my first psychotic breakdown. You see, when I am manic, I eventually become psychotic in that I suffer from paranoia, delusions and both auditory and visual hallucinations. I eventually become insane.
I never become violent. I admit that I punched a psychiatry student in the nose when I was first admitted to the psychiatric ward; however, I believed this person was trying to kill me and I was not going to go down without a fight. This is the one and only time I hit anyone. As a child, I never fought back - not with punches or slaps, at least. I was completely pacifistic; I walked away.
Why the stigma?
In writing my life's story, The Porcelain Doll (My life with mental illness), I asked myself over and over:
Why is there so much stigma associated with mental illness?
Why are people afraid to admit that they suffer from this illness?
What can be done to alleviate the stigma?
And in my story I did my best to explain mental illness through the logical progression of my breakdown in the hopes that increased knowledge of psychotic thinking would generate greater understanding and acceptance of mental illness.
I realize now that I was fooling myself. Well, maybe that's a bit harsh. People are beginning to learn more and more about mental illness. There is no doubt about that. And maybe this illness is gradually gaining acceptance as a treatable condition, not unlike diabetes.
I take my meds every day and I am well. I cannot go off my meds, period. To do so would precipitate another psychotic break.
But I still sometimes see fear in people's eyes when I tell them I am manic-depressive. And I know that schizophrenics are even more feared.
We all fear that which we do not understand, and this is only human.
So what is the solution? How do we erase the stigma?
Words, words, words.
Words have tremendous power. We are all affected by words, like it or not.
I choose to call myself "manic-depressive" and not "bipolar." Why? Because the former better describes the illness. Lately, I have been thinking that we should scrap the term "mental illness" altogether and rename it "sanity challenged."
Sounds benign, doesn't it? And it usually evokes laughter. Yes, sanity challenged could work.
But I digress. You hear "schizophrenic" and you think "violent." We have been conditioned to have this reaction. I was the same as everyone else. Prior to my breakdown, I met a schizophrenic man and I admit I was somewhat unsettled when in his company. Did he ever say or do anything to evoke this response, this unease? Sadly, he did not. My response was entirely the result of knowing that this man suffered from schizophrenia. And there was nothing he could say or do that would dispel my nervousness.
Again, I ask, how do we erase the stigma?
How about examining words even closer. They say Charles Ng and the Son of Sam were criminally insane. Here I think we need to look more closely at our wording. Were these men insane in the psychiatric sense of the word; that is, did they suffer from delusions, paranoia and/or hallucinations? Do we even have a true definition of insanity?
I looked it up in my brand new dictionary. Basically, insanity was defined as being "not sane," whereas sanity was defined as being "not insane." Crazy, eh?
I have come up with my own definition of insanity: "True insanity exists when one's delusions are flawlessly logical and, therefore, one does not exist and cannot function in the real world." I do not think that any of the psychopathic killers known to us could be categorized insane according to my definition of the word-not when they are capable of planning and carrying out their heinous actions. And I could not say that I had been insane, either.
This label would be reserved for those who do not respond to medical treatment, to those sad souls who are, for now, in their own worlds - unable to join us and exist in our harsh reality, in our world of Charles Ng's and child pornography and rape and abuse.
It is time to draw the line. To erase the stigma associated with mental illness, we must erase the words "criminally insane" from our vocabulary. Instead, psychopaths should be called exactly what they are: "evil."
There is no mental illness known as "evil." Evil should not be associated with mental illness at all.
So, now we would have a section of society known as "evil." To be manic depressive or schizophrenic would no longer be equated with being psychopathic or potentially violent. To be mentally ill would mean simply just that: suffering from a mental illness . . . or sanity challenged.
Janet's book, The Porcelain Doll (My life with mental illness), will be in bookstores April 2004, published by DreamCatcher Publishing Inc., New Brunswick, Canada.