De-stigmatizing mental illness

I used to be afraid of going crazy. There’s serious mental illness in my family, which I won’t discuss because I can only out myself.

I’ve lived through the Women’s Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, and now the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Revolution.

In my lifetime I hope to witness the de-stigmatization of mental illness.

We’re all somewhere on a continuum of mental and emotional health. I’ve been a ruminator my entire life, more anxious than most people I know.

But what family can’t point to an Aunt Bessie who always seemed depressed, and jumped overboard crossing the Atlantic in the 1920s, or some other family member whom nobody wants to discuss?

I never met Uncle Max, my father’s brother who was institutionalized his entire life. Maybe he had Down’s Syndrome and it wasn’t mental illness at all, but I’ll never know. An identical twin cousin has autism and spent her life in a facility. I believe she’s still there.

When I was in graduate school in the early 1970s at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I designed an independent study in radical psychology. R.D. Laing, the Scottish psychiatrist, intrigued me. In his book, “The Politics of Experience,” he questioned who was really crazy — the airman dropping bombs on Vietnam or the guy who convinced himself he had a bomb in his stomach? I was young and impressionable and didn’t know what to think.

At that time, I also taught an introduction to psychology class at Northampton Junior College. Where did I get the bright idea to take students on a field trip to the state mental hospital? What a horrible experience. How times have changed.

People — human beings like you and me — were sitting in the hallway wearing only Johnny shirts, talking to themselves. Modern medications and better understanding of mental illness help people live productive lives who have schizophrenia, severe depression, or bipolar disorder.

For years I refused to take any medication for my anxiety. Hey, I’m strong. I could live with the wheels steadily turning in my head, pondering what awful things might happen instead of living my life.

Finally around three years ago, my gynecologist suggested that I take a low daily dose of Effexor (75 mg). “You won’t believe it; you’ll feel like a normal person,” she told me.

Who knows what “normal” means, but now I think I do. We actually lowered the dose to 37.5 mg, which is way below  therapeutic. But it works for me. Maybe growing older, without fluctuating hormones, becoming happier in the Tucson sunshine, has also contributed.

I’m on the board of Cafe 54/My Place Clubhouse on Pennington Street. I work with two clubhouse members who are writers, whose mental health has been affected far more seriously than mine. But they don’t have to sit in some hallway alone, kept away from so-called normal folks.

And like women who were all supposed to stay in their homes and be fulfilled by serving their husbands and children, and those African-Americans who cleaned the homes of Anglo lawmakers but weren’t allowed to vote, and LGBTs who must lie about their sexuality to join the military, people with mental illness are us.


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3 Responses to De-stigmatizing mental illness

  1. Richard Johnson says:


    Your message resonates with me. My son Alex appears to have a severe form of OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) which so far in his adult life has rendered him essentially totally inactive (can’t work, essentially doesn’t leave home except for a few appointments, and is mostly nonsocial). I too look forward to a time when the public view toward mental illness is open and helpful.

  2. Amy Lederman says:

    Your words are poignant and positive, in that it is true that we “have come a long way baby!” But surely, not far enough. With more and more “normal” folks willing to discuss and disclose these issues, we will continue to become a healthier society. Thanks for writing!

  3. Bob Keteyian says:

    Each of us have our own struggles in life, most of which remain invisible. For those whose struggles are more visible there should only be compassion, not judgment. Yet what we don’t understand often scares us, and it is fear that propels stigma. Thanks for writing this, Sheila.

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