Section: OpinionsOctober 28, 2016
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 5.7 million Americans, or 2.6 percent of the adult population, has bipolar disorder. 5.7 million people live with this disorder, often trying to go about their daily lives in spite of how much this can affect them. often overlooked is the way that bipolar disorder can affect the lives of those who have it as there are many popular misconceptions and stigmas surrounding bipolar disorder. For instance, many people confuse mood swings with bipolar disorder. The truth is, bipolar disorder is characterized by depressive lows and manic highs, which often last for weeks or months, depending on the individual in question. Additionally, the term “bipolar” is constantly used in a negative connotation to describe someone who is seen as unnecessarily emotional, or someone who can rapidly change moods. It’s a toxic misconception that is overall detrimental to people with bipolar disorder who may often feel like their very real condition is trivialized by these perceptions. Like 5.7 million Americans, I am bipolar. Like 5.7 million Americans, I experience depressive lows and manic highs. Like 5.7 million Americans, I want my disorder to be taken seriously.
The issue of misrepresentation, misunderstanding and stigma is not exclusive to bipolar disorder. Mental illness is often seen as taboo for polite conversation, and people with mental illnesses are often ostracized for conditions that are beyond their control. People who have mental illnesses are often treated as if their problems are insignificant or nonexistent because of the lack of a visible physical injury. Simply put, mental illness is not taken seriously by entirely too many people, and though we may often act as if we always take this matter seriously, the problem can be found everywhere, even on the Brandeis campus. Even on the Brandeis campus, there is often stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental illness. Even on the Brandeis campus, I’ve heard people call themselves bipolar because they became suddenly angry at a mild inconvenience. Even on the Brandeis campus, we need to take steps to better support people with mental illness.
One of the primary issues concerning the stigma that surrounds mental illness is the constant scapegoating of people who have mental illnesses. People with mental illnesses are perceived to be more violent than neurotypical people, and mental illness seems to only be brought up in the wake of a tragedy to try and explain why the incident occurred. As a matter of fact, statistics from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services state that only 3-5 percent of all violent acts can be attributed to individuals with a mental illness, and people who have a mental illness are over 10 times more likely to be the victims of abuse or crime than neurotypical people. Sometimes it appears that we have an almost subhuman perception of mentally ill people, which comes from the myth that they are prone to extreme acts of violence, speaks volumes about the larger issue at hand. Our society has serious misconceptions about mental illness that need to be destroyed, primarily because it’s disgraceful for us to use mentally ill people as a scapegoat, especially when they are so often ostracized, stigmatized, belittled or invalidated.
There’s a good chance that you know someone who has a mental illness. Whether or not they have confided that in you is solely their business, but it falls onto all of us to understand that mental illness, while often not viewed with the gravity that one would see a broken leg, is a serious problem that affects many of the people around us. Mental illness needs to be addressed due to the very real impact that it has on many people. However, before we can confidently be supportive allies we need to break down the stigma surrounding mental illness and the misconceptions that we have about the people who have them. People who have mental illnesses do not deserve the stigma, nor the patronizing or dismissiveness that they often receive. They need to be assured that they are facing very real issues that have a profound impact on their lives, and that their mental illness in no way invalidates them or reduces their worth as human beings.