On Mental Illness: A Mile in the Shoes of a Mentally Ill Person

By Jack Bragen
Tuesday January 25, 2011 - 01:04:00 PM

One of the primary goals of this column is to provide for the general public some idea of what it is like to be a mentally ill person. Since people in the mainstream often seem to denigrate the mentally ill, I believe they ought to realize how hard it is to be one of us. Additionally, the public ought to realize that we are essentially the same as “normal“ people, only we struggle with brain illnesses that are not always under our control. The adage, "you should not judge a man until you have walked a mile in his shoes," is applicable to the attitudes people have toward mentally ill persons. Indeed, you should be asking; what do the shoes feel like of a schizophrenic person, a clinically depressed person or someone with bipolar as they try to coexist in society, and even try to hold a job alongside people in society at large? What follows could give you some idea of those shoes... 

Partly, you are looking at fright. The symptoms of mental illness are frightening, especially because the afflicted person doesn’t always know what is happening, or why their world seems to have turned upside down. In psychosis, a badly afflicted person is living in an internally generated, false reality which has taken over the mind. Subjectively, this seems as if the entire world around oneself has gone crazy. When a person is psychotic, it may seem to him or her that the rest of the world is insane and that oneself is still normal. This can be a frightening experience. In the case of bipolar, an afflicted person may experience extreme depression or extremely high energy, with no explanation for the cause of either mood. These moods are often accompanied by irrationality. The bipolar person’s speech and behavior are sometimes upsetting to others. The afflicted person may be clueless that something is wrong, or may be aware of their chaos but, like a person riding an endless merry-go-round, can do nothing to stop it. In the case of depression, the vision of the world is skewed, and the world seems to become a hopeless, awful nightmare in which everything is intended to go wrong. The consequences of the symptoms are additionally terrifying. It is not uncommon for a mentally ill person to get jail time for minor infractions that take place when the person has lost all common sense. Some mental hospitals are terrifying. (However, due to the patient’s rights movement, there have been numerous reforms to the mental health treatment system over the past thirty years.) 

After terror and chaos, for a mentally ill person, comes medication. Medication seems to be a savior as it often brings back some parts of normality. However, the side effects of medication can cause tremendous suffering, both physical and psychological. The “drugged out” sensation that comes with some medications has the patient seeking massive amounts of coffee and cigarettes to get some relief. The consumer’s muscles become stiff; limbs become difficult to move; the consumer becomes lethargic. Drowsiness is common; a mental health consumer may sleep twelve hours or more. Dry mouth has a person carrying a soft drink at all times. (Dry mouth in combination with lack of self-care can result in rotted out teeth.) Don’t get me wrong: I think medication is great, or at least, useful. However, for the first couple years of taking medication the side effects can be a massive source of suffering. At some point, one hopefully gets used to being medicated, and eventually, the side effects, upon being ignored, may retreat to the background of consciousness. {Additionally, medications often cause health problems such as obesity, hypertension and diabetes, and this is its own entire subject for a column.} 

When the mental health consumer begins to make progress in his or her life, there remain areas in which it is hard to walk a mile in our shoes. One of these is the attempt at employment. Working can be anxiety producing if one‘s filter incorporates low-level paranoia. Keeping one‘s disability “private“ at a job can be a source of anxiety. If open about this disability, if not fired as a result, the mentally ill person may get made cute, or on the other hand, may get treated as a scapegoat (blamed for things that are not the person‘s fault.) The mentally ill person may be presumed computer illiterate, or may be presumed unable to bake a cake from a cake mix without supervision. Not working can be a cause of humiliation, since it is often necessary, in that case, to get assistance from family. The need for ongoing financial help as an adult can poison one’s relationships with parents. And it is also an opportunity for family members to chime in as if a superior who is bestowing advice about how to succeed in the world. That wouldn’t be happening if the limiting disease were cancer or being an amputee. 

In short, it takes a brave person to try walking a mile in the shoes of a mentally ill person, and these shoes are not easily worn. 

Please feel free to send me your comments or stories at I can not give medical or other advice in this column or apart from it.