ON MENTAL ILLNESS: A Misunderstood People

Jack Bragen
Friday October 12, 2018 - 04:40:00 PM

It is common for people with mental illness to be misunderstood. We do not necessarily present ourselves in ways that non-afflicted people can readily understand. Many non-afflicted people do not seem to make any effort to understand us, and it may be easier to just dismiss us as sick, depraved, or brain-damaged. However, it is hard for us to prove ourselves when we are used to being trampled upon by those who do not have the disadvantage of being medicated and otherwise controlled. 

More often than not, mentally ill people are just as smart and aware as those considered normal. "Normal" people may gain satisfaction about considering us inferior to them, but this perception is not accurate. 

When the illness is no longer in charge of us because we've been given treatment, we are not done yet with our recovery. We need to learn to make others realize that we do have mental capacity. Yet, there are constraints placed on us that can make this difficult. 

I've coexisted with hundreds of mentally ill people, in my years in the mental health system, and I find that most of us have average or above average levels of intelligence and sensitivity. The illness makes it harder for most non-afflicted people to understand that we have this. It is a yolk that cheats us out of the use of our own minds--and these minds are often good minds. 

It varies. Some persons with mental illness lack the ability to understand very much. Others, including me, may find it a lot harder to express ourselves. People tend to dismiss anything we say, attributing anything we express to be the product of a delusional mind. A substantial barrier we must face is that of changing or accepting the erroneous mindset of the normal. 

Mental illness, in an acute phase, causes a "patient" to behave in ways that do not make sense. The illnesses affect the mind to the extent that it may be hard to have the basic insight of what the illness does to us, how it affects us, and even, the insight of the fact that the insight has been missing. When we come to realize that a malfunction has dominated our minds, it can open the door to living in reality. 

Once the mind is reality based, we are done only with the first leg of the journey. Following an acute episode of mental illness, it can take years, depending on the individual and their diagnosis, to raise functioning to an effective level. When we reach that, many mentally ill people forget that it was treatment that got them there, and they must continue it. 

However, once we are back up to a good level of functioning, people may continue to believe that we are intrinsically inferior, and that we aren't capable of much. Facing this can be disheartening. 

When people underestimate us, it is a disservice. People assume that any boasts of greatness are simply "delusions of grandeur," and this is harmful to our lives. When someone is in the category of "normal" they are not viewed the same skepticism. 

Mentally ill people are often badly misunderstood. Bad motives are sometimes attributed to many behaviors that are commonplace, behaviors that among the non-afflicted wouldn't even be noticed. People don’t give us the benefit of the doubt. 

When people assume we are incapable, we will inevitably be denied the same opportunities given to the normal. (Additionally, people in positions of power over a mentally ill person may gain satisfaction from feeling powerful.) 

People do not necessarily view mental health consumers as fully-fledged human beings. We may differ in appearance and mannerisms, and we may sometimes be awkward. Thus, many people do not view us as worthy of genuine compassion. Caregivers may be condescending and may give phony sympathy when we are in distress. Lack of basic understanding can lead to mistreatment without the same compunctions as when someone deemed normal is mistreated. 

This perception of us as less than a person has classically led to mistreatment in hospitals. It causes any observations made to be interpreted in a warped way that professionals use to support the notion that we are just sick or crazy people. People often don't even try to understand who and what we are. 

And, you might ask, "who and what are mentally ill people?" My answer, the same as anyone else, afflicted to not. There is no actual difference between mentally ill people and anyone else. We're all made of the same stuff, and people need to recognize that.