Across society, attempts to increase awareness of mental health challenges have been increasing. Infomercials flood our TVs, YouTube is full of videos on the topic, thousands of books are dedicated to self-improvement, and the newest trend is celebrities telling all about their own struggles with mental illness—although I question their motives sometimes.
Deciding to come out about mental illness
But even with beautiful people sharing their own stories, mental health struggles are highly stigmatized, stemming in part from decades upon decades of negative portrayals through TV, movies, non-fiction books, and crime novels.
Society’s ignorance and biases, encouraged by mostly one-sided portrayals, play a major factor in our view of mental illness. This keeps the stigma etched in our minds, similar to a dirty river, where the pollution is so infused that no amount of cleaning will suffice.
Some people with mental health prmote negative stereotype
And to be fair, some individuals who struggle with mental illness really do act out in ways that uphold stereotypes and contribute to the stigma. After all, it is hard to convince someone that they might want to associate with a person who might, at any moment, dissociate to the point where abnormal thoughts become their justification for actions that go against all social norms.
Ike Ibeabuchi was a heavyweight fighter with great promise, rising to prominence after a stunning defeat against previously undefeated David Tua. The Nigerian-born fighter, who went by the name “The President,” upped his reputation as a serious contender when he stopped former world champion, Chris Byrd, giving the boxer his first defeat. The boxing world had a remarkable star in the making in Ibeabuchi.
But something went wrong, very wrong, for Ibeabuchi. His appearance was that of a conflicted man whose thoughts were like a fuzzy TV, his thought process scattered and unfocused. His mind–the very tool he spent years as a boxer developing in order to adjust and survive the brutal ugliness of boxing–turned on him. What no opponent could do to him in the ring, his mental health could. His own issues made up for his opponents’ lack of success.
It was rumored that Ibeabuchi began having severe headaches and that hallucinations became a daily part of his life. It was said he was confused and that he saw demons around him. But it was in August of 1997 that the beast in Ibeabuchi revealed itself.
He became angry at his ex-girlfriend and flew into a rage, abducting the woman’s 15-year-old son and crashing his automobile into a pillar, trying to kill himself and the teenager (who survived and is in a wheelchair for life).
Ibeabuchi served 120 days in jail. But he soon found himself in prison again, after an escort claimed that the former fighter had assaulted her in a hotel room in Las Vegas. Ibeabuchi was convicted of battery with intent to commit a crime and was sentenced to 2-10 years in prison; he was also convicted of attempted sexual assault and sentenced to 3-20 years in prison. He has been battling mental illness and the legal system for much of his life.
People with Mental illness are not how they are portrayed
Thankfully, most people suffering from mental health issues are not dangerous. But beyond the damage done to his own life and the lives of the people he has interacted with, stories like Ibeabuchi’s help foster the stigma that individuals with mental health issues are “crazy” at best, dangerous at worst.
And appearing crazy is what keeps many people living with mental illness “in the closet,” playing a game of peek-a-boo or cat and mouse: wanting to reveal their illness but knowing a “flare-up” at the wrong time could be disastrous; wanting to live openly but trying to forecast any possible consequences, should a smidge of their illness leak out.
Author Kay Jamison
In her book, An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison, who suffers from severe bipolar disorder, spoke openly about her spending sprees, episodes of violence, and attempted suicide, all of which made her trepidation regarding speaking out about her mental illness that much greater.
“I have had many concerns about writing a book that so explicitly describes my own attacks of mania, depression, and psychosis, as well as my problems acknowledging the need for ongoing medication,” she writes. “Clinicians have been, for obvious reasons of licensing and hospital privilege, reluctant to make their psychiatric problems known to others. These concerns are often well-warranted. I have no idea what the long-term effects of discussing such issues so openly will be on my personal and professional life.”
Marsha M. Linehan is a psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a highly popular therapeutic treatment method. She spoke openly in 2011 about her fear of telling family members and an audience of 200 about her battle with schizophrenia, Borderline Personality Disorder, and her propensity to cut her wrists to relieve stress and anxiety.
“So many people have begged me to come forward, and I just thought — well, I have to do this. I owe it to them. I cannot die a coward.” (Expert on Mental Illness Reveals Her Own Fight🙂
But the most compelling story was the talk Jame Geathers gave at a TedX event see here During the speech, a nervous Geathers acknowledged her own mental illness for the first time, not only to an audience of total strangers but for the first time to her family as well. Stigma forced two highly respectable women in the field of psychology, Linehan, and Jamison, to hide their illnesses. Geathers, too, went to great lengths to remain “in the closet” for years.
Melody Moezzi, in her book Haldol And Hyacinths: A Bipolar Life, says, “Losing your mind is indeed traumatizing, but doing so in front of a supposedly sane audience is mortifying.”
Moezzi, who was admitted to a psych ward due to extreme mental health issues resulting in multiple suicide attempts, adds, “No one rallies around you, or shaves her head in solidarity… Normals feel uneasy around those of us who’ve lost a grip on reality.”
And losing grip on reality is what scares people and causes the local government in Nigeria to treat individuals living with mental illness in unbelievable ways.
People in developing countries
The Human Rights Watch published an eye-opening article entitled Nigeria: People with Mental Health Conditions Chained, Abused in which they trace the horrendous treatment and conditions of those living with mental illness in Lago.
Thousands of people with mental health conditions across Nigeria are chained and locked up in various facilities where they face terrible abuse… Human Rights Watch found that people with actual or perceived mental health conditions, including children, are placed in facilities without their consent, usually by relatives. In some cases, police arrest people with actual or perceived mental health conditions and send them to government-run rehabilitation centers.
Once there, many are shackled with iron chains, around one or both ankles, to heavy objects, or to other detainees, in some cases for months or years. They cannot leave, are often confined in overcrowded, unhygienic conditions, and are sometimes forced to sleep, eat, and defecate within the same confined place. Many are physically and emotionally abused as well as forced to take treatments.
It is estimated that the population in Nigeria is close to 200 million people, and yet there are fewer than 300 trained mental health professionals available to address the growing mental health needs of the country’s population.
Writer Socrates Mbamalu profiles a disenchanted psychiatrist named Dr. Dapo Adegbaju, who tells the interviewer about doctors trained to treat mental illness who then leave Nigeria to seek employment in the UK and other places.
The article paints a grim picture of Nigeria, where doctors receive low pay or no pay at all. They go months without employment, and the most recent 2020 budget only allocates 4.3% of Nigeria’s funds for health care, as President Muhammadu Buhari hasn’t made their mental health crisis a priority.
Sue Abderholden, executive director of NAMI Minnesota, has spent years advocating for people living with mental health challenges, lobbying for changes in Congress, and working to change the way we talk about public attitudes toward mental health issues.
“Perhaps it’s time to use the word ‘stigma’ more sparingly, if at all,” she wrote on the NAMI website. “In reality, what people with mental illness are facing is not stigma, it’s discrimination. If you believe as I do that NAMI is a movement, a civil and human rights movement, we need to start saying the word—discrimination—more often.”
All in all… the Stigma will remain
I commend her earnest efforts to remove the word “stigma.” She is right that the societal issue facing people living with mental health challenges is bigger than the head shake or quiet disapproval that “stigma” suggests.
But even if she is successful in convincing politicians or other officials to do away with the word, it will still be nearly impossible to reach the millions of individuals that need to be persuaded to erase the word from their vocabularies when it comes to mental illness. And even if they make comprehensive efforts to do so, that will not change the sad reality that popular culture depicts mental health as sad or dangerous or both.
Frightening images are everywhere: individuals with severe mental illness who engage in unpredictable, uncontrollable behavior, victims of intense emotions that are inappropriate in a given context. Mental illness can make our minds our own enemies.
And because it can distort a person’s reasoning and relationship to reality, it can be challenging—unless it is an individual that we know well—to determine who is worthy of the stigma associated with their diagnosis of mental health issues.