Reducing the stigma of mental illness should be the next civil rights movement. I’ve always been fascinated by “diseases of the brain,” as some of the writers at my Our Place Clubhouse writing workshop call mental illness. From the early 1970s, when I read British psychiatrist R.D. Laing’s “The Politics of Experience,” I wondered who was crazy: Was it the individual who believed she had a bomb in her stomach or the pilot dropping bombs on Vietnam.? It was a conundrum.
We certainly never talked about mental illness in my family growing up, but I’ll bet it was there. My father fell asleep most evenings reading the newspaper in his chair (depression?). My mother was very angry and yelled a lot (very likely had OCD). Were there chemical imbalances, disorders of the brain? Does it matter? Aren’t we all on a mental health spectrum?
My view of what constitutes mental illness has matured since my infatuation with R.D. Laing, who may have had schizophrenia himself. There’s the theory that therapists and shrinks harbor their own brain disorders, spending a lifetime trying to right their own stuff. Could be.
When I was in grad school in the ’70s, earning an M.A.T. degree at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, I concocted an independent study in radical psychology. I taught an introductory psychology class at Northampton Junior College. Taking students on a “field trip” to the state mental hospital is one of the biggest regrets of my life: Inmates — that’s what they were — were catatonic or totally out of it, drugged to the nth degree, dressed in Johnny shirts, seeming inhuman. We all stared at them in disbelief. Crazy people unlike us. Really sad.
Thank goodness it’s not like that anymore. Many people with serious brain disorders are out in the world, high-functioning, taking much better medications to alleviate their symptoms, living “normal” lives.
There are fantastic community places here in Tucson like Cafe 54/Our Place Clubhouse, which is under the umbrella of Coyote Task Force. I was asked to be on the board around eight years ago, after writing an article about a local psychiatrist. Talking about finances at board meetings didn’t do it for me. I applied for a Poets & Writers magazine grant to work with writers. I wanted to contribute more, to help educate the wider community about people who are more than their mental illness. Watch for our chapbook sometime in 2013.
We’re on our way.