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Changing the way we view “crazy”

Oct. 6, 2017
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Following multiple hysteric phone calls to my parents during the past two weeks in which I recited the usual script my brain has perfectly rehearsed for intense depressive breakdowns, I decided to withdraw from second to last quarter of college classes and return home yet again for treatment. My phone calls included something along the lines of uncontrollable crying, expression of my desire to be dead, profuse apologies for being the way I am, details of my feelings of hopelessness and overwhelming guilt, and an overall plea for help. Last Thursday evening I picked my Dad up from the airport, and Friday morning at 5:30am we began the 16-hour drive back home. Upon our arrival at home, I thanked him for "rescuing" me.

I woke up on Monday morning to the news of a mass shooting in Vegas. I felt an immediate wave of sadness, which was shortly followed by a number of thoughts. The first thought concerned the obvious stigma we place on mental illness. I think that as a society, for the most part, we have recently gotten more comfortable with the idea of certain mental illnesses—among them depression, anxiety, and PTSD—but we are quick to label anything outside this perceived realm of "normal" mental illness as "crazy." Even after being diagnosed with bipolar, a mood disorder that regularly gets hit with the "crazy" label, I still found myself referring to others as crazy—even people with the same disorder as me! This isn't coming from a place of intending to be hurtful; rather, it is something that has been learned, since there is limited vocabulary available to us when we want to talk about mental illness. The label of crazy for anything we don't understand has become the cultural norm. As with anything, this harmful language contributing to the stigma surrounding mental illness can be unlearned, but it will take awareness, understanding, sympathy, an open mind, and the willingness to change the way we have been conditioned to think about the divide between "normal" and “crazy.” 

The next thought that I had was that the timing felt like a strange coincidence. On the night that I returned home to receive even more treatment for my mental illnesses, over 50 people were harmed and killed by a man whose own mental health immediately became a subject of intense media speculation. The domestic terrorist responsible for the deaths in Las Vegas was a wealthy white man who was tremendously privileged in many ways; when it comes to the conversations we should be having in response to this massacre, whether or not he had an undiagnosed mental illness was entirely beside the point. I did, however, note that much of the conversation immediately following the massacre was talk of how this man was “crazy.” I find it interesting that we use the same word to describe a domestic terrorist who acted in violent and heartless ways, that we do to describe someone acting in a way we don’t consider “normal.” I know that I have found myself in the position of being the “crazy ex girlfriend” for openly expressing my feelings, but it seems odd to me that the two are even comparable - yet we use the same word. Nevertheless, this public conversation got me thinking about how much of a privilege it is for me to receive ongoing treatment for my own mental illnesses. 

In the 1950s, people became increasingly aware of the inhumane conditions of psychiatric hospitals, which lead President John F. Kennedy to sign a law creating the Community Mental Health Act of 1963. This was among the first initiatives made by the federal government to provide people with better access to mental health treatment. However, despite this legislation helping to reform the public mental health system, we still have a long way to go. Although strides have been made, the public mental health system remains mostly inadequate, which has led to prisons and correctional centers becoming the largest providers for mental health services in the country. 

While I am so incredibly grateful to be well taken care of, it feels dishearteningly unfair to me that I am lucky enough to have my family’s financial privilege—and access to great insurance that allows me to seek the best mental health treatments—while individuals and communities in acute need lack those resources. Access to mental health treatment shouldn't be a matter of privilege, but instead a fundamental human right. Although sharing my personal experience with mental health treatment won't change the fact that many people still lack the proper resources to seek help, I hope that sharing my story will help others reconsider the way they view mental illness—or even encourage those struggling to pursue treatment. With time and effort, we can change our views on mental illness. Until then, I encourage those to reconsider the way you choose to use the word “crazy.”

And, of course, increase the accessibility and funding of care for those who need it.