ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Psychiatric Conditions and the Value of Life

Jack Bragen
Friday October 31, 2014 - 10:33:00 AM

A major psychiatric illness will introduce limits to our lives. It brings baggage, it brings requirements and it brings some restrictions. Taking medication is just the beginning. We have to keep our prescriptions filled. We must meet with a psychiatrist on an ongoing basis. We may be forced to undergo psychotherapy--we may like this and may not. (While in my past I used to get a lot of benefit from therapy, I essentially feel done with it after more than thirty years of it.)  

Mental illness may have ramifications that affect most aspects of our lives. It may, or may not mean that we will not be able to perform full-time professional employment. Or, if we could continue or acquire or employment, there is the question of whether we will remain closeted, or disclose the fact of the illness. Mental illness also impacts whether or not we will have romantic friends--some of them may exit out of a relationship (or would not consider one to begin with) if they find out that we are bipolar, depressed or schizophrenic.  

Mental illness in our society is a package deal. Because of how things are set up for us, with our various appointments, with the sedating effects of medication, and with the value judgments people put upon us that say we are "incapable," we are up against a lot if we are trying not to be defined by the illness.  

Certain people in society, some of whom have authority over persons with mental illness, might prefer it if we would just take our pills and shut up.  

But we shouldn't give up. Having a mental illness doesn’t automatically mean that we can’t do anything in life. I have met numerous people with mental illness who are very productive and who contribute to their communities.  

Perceptions of persons with mental illness are likely to be skewed, since some of us while in public do not appear to be normal--we may be poorly dressed and groomed, may fidget from medication side effects, and may show signs of premature aging. However, we are not seeing the mentally ill persons who are participants in mainstream society, who are members of the workforce and who are raising a family. This category does exist. This is not apparent because most people at your job are not going to declare to everyone in your office that they are bipolar.  

On the other hand, if you find that full-time work isn’t very doable while in treatment for mental illness--then so what?  

Attempting not to be defined by mental illness might be similar to someone who must use a wheelchair not being defined by the difficulty or inability to walk. What you do with your life other than either not walking or having a mental illness, whether the activity is related or unrelated to your disability, could become the real measure of your life.  

It isn't always necessary to do something only when you think you will "get something" for it. Certain things are worth doing regardless of whether or not they come with a reward. I encourage journaling and meditating. I encourage writing. I encourage sitting in a comfortable chair with a book to read and a cup of coffee or tea.  

Volunteer work may not have the same prestige as paid work, but it is still a very valuable activity, can keep a person busy, and it is worth doing. Most of the writing I do is volunteer, which, for a perception of more status, can be called "pro bono."  

If you want to feel good about yourself, my advice is to forget about whether or not you are a "normal" person. Other people have mental illnesses and other physical illnesses. You are not the only one. Why is it abnormal to be mentally ill? You still breathe the same air, must drink water and must eat. How is mental illness really different from any other condition? Is mental illness something we have or is it something we "are"? It is up to you.