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Originally published January 25, 2013 at 4:05 PM | Page modified January 25, 2013 at 4:05 PM

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Op-ed: Changing how we talk about mental illness

As a society, we don’t talk about mental health in the personal ways that raise awareness, foster advocacy, and lead to meaningful change, writes guest columnist Alan Taylor.

Special to The Times

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IN 2012 a string of mass shootings shook America. Ian Stawicki took five lives at Cafe Racer in Seattle, James Holmes opened fire in a crowded Colorado theater and, most disturbing, Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 children, in Newtown, Conn.

The mental health of each of these perpetrators was immediately questioned, which has led to a renewed call for better mental-health treatment.

I’m afraid that no substantive change will occur because we are discussing mental health in the abstract sphere of politics rather that in the intimate communities where we live day to day — places like our homes, jobs, schools, faith communities and social gatherings.

As a society, we don’t talk about these issues, at least not in the personal ways that raise awareness, foster advocacy and lead to meaningful change. We talk about the dangers of mental health in a way that causes those who are actually living with mental-health challenges to gather in hushed circles and share their struggles, wisdom and perspective with only a select few.

Their stories, front-line experiences and insights are the key to a more holistic societal understanding. But they don’t speak because they are scared of losing respect, trust and relationships, and being viewed as another mentally ill person who might go on a violent rampage.

In 2003 I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, type 1. I’ve felt the cold exclusion of stigma. In the months after my first manic episode many of my friends withdrew; one friend told me that her boyfriend didn’t feel it was safe for her to be around me. There are times when I hesitate to reveal my diagnosis for fear that new people I meet will subtly distance themselves from me — the shifty look of distrust, unsure what erratic thing the guy with bipolar might do.

Most times, though, I share my story, because I don’t want their picture of mental illness to be a mad man with a gun.

Change begins with education and conversation. Most people know very little about mental health. Society at large seems to be mostly ignorant, informed predominantly by popular media and gruesome news stories. Rather than a disease of the brain — the same way diabetes is a disease of the pancreas — we see a disease of character.

We speak in language that perpetuates stigmas, referring to moody people as “being bipolar.” We foster fear by putting the word “schizophrenia” in print most often with the words “violence,” “untreated” and “risk to themselves and others.” We discourage transparency by removing trust and responsibilities from those who choose to speak openly about their depression or anxiety.

I believe that for real change to occur, our communities must push against the flood of bigotry and misunderstanding, fear and labeling. We must initiate space for safe conversation that invites those living with mental-health challenges to share their stories of struggle and survival.

What might this look like? Religious leaders might consider devoting time in their services to educate their members. Medical and nursing schools might consider providing more robust mental-health training that includes firsthand testimony from those who live with mental-health challenges. Business owners might make mental-health education a part of new-hire orientation.

School administrators might build mental-health education into the curriculum. Media outlets might produce positive stories about mental health that expose society to a more balanced and accurate view of this issue. Those of who live with a brain disease might share their story, accepting the invitation to discuss and educate.

Undoubtedly, we need better funding for mental-health treatment, but we also need a shift in the basic way we talk and think about matters of mental health. This shift won’t take place in Olympia or Washington, D.C. It will take place in our office, our favorite restaurant, our church, mosque, or temple and our family gatherings.

Alan Taylor works as a peer counselor at a community mental-health clinic in Puyallup.


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