Mental Illness – Redefined

(Photo by Jess Sanchez)


Mental Illness – Redefined

By Zelda Dominguez

Growing up, mental illness was around me, but the funny thing was that I didn’t even know that’s what it was. I had a cousin and then an uncle who committed suicide. Looking back, no one really talked about it.

My father, from serving in the war, had what was then called, shell shock, battle fatigue, and, most recently, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As a result, he abused alcohol until the age of 60 when he received Christ.

I, in my early 20’s, had an eating disorder. I never told anyone what I was doing., In retrospect, I can clearly see now that my father and I had two  forms of mental disorders, although they were never formally diagnosed. No one ever told me that. No one ever talked about our circumstances, or what we were feeling while experiencing that. I find that so strange; like an elephant in the room, how can you not talk about these major issues?

People had false beliefs about mental illness and attached a negative stereotype. There is still a stigma attached to it even today. We live now in a culture where information is more accessible and treatment is more available. So tell me this. Why do we still experience some of the same behavior today? People are either not telling someone what they are feeling, or people are feeling uncomfortable and not wanting to deal with people who are struggling with a form of mental illness.

I had a mental disorder, I lived with someone who had one, yet I knew very little about it. In writing this article, I resolved to learn more, be supportive, and be more open to have dialog with others, especially after just losing a friend to suicide who had struggled with depression.

19.1% of U.S. adults experienced mental illness in 2018 (47.6 million people). This represents 1 in 5 adults. 4.6% of U.S. adults experienced serious mental illness in 2018 (11.4 million people). This represents 1 in 25 adults. 20.1% of people experiencing homelessness in the U.S. have a serious mental health condition. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the U.S.

The overall suicide rate in the U.S. has increased by 31% since 2001

I think personally there are a few things that keep us from talking, being comfortable about, or relating to people with mental illness. The first thing is lack of knowledge or awareness about it. For instance, there is a vast array of disorders within the mental health spectrum. So let’s start with: what is mental health?

Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence, through adulthood. There are nearly 300 mental disorders listed in the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). This is a handbook used by health professionals to help identify and diagnose mental illness.

Some of the main groups of mental disorders are:

  • Mood disorders (such as depression or bipolar disorder)
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Personality disorders
  • Psychotic disorders (such as schizophrenia)
  • Eating disorders
  • Trauma-related disorders (such as PTSD)
  • Substance abuse disorders

There are training and classes that provide police officers, teachers, and others with knowledge and skills to improve their responses to individuals with mental illnesses. They have made a difference in knowledge, attitudes, and social distance related to mental illness.

We need to be educated and have awareness of something that is so prevalent in our everyday lives. Others’ judgments almost always stem from a lack of understanding, rather than information based on facts. Negative portrayals of mental illness in contemporary movies, news reports, and TV shows are common and are sure to reinforce biased beliefs and stigmatizing attitudes towards people with mental health problems. Learning to accept your condition, or someone else’s, supporting others, and helping educate can make a big difference.

Sometimes people feel that avoidance is the best way of ‘dealing’ with people with mental health issues, or situations. Unfortunately, in the workplace there is still stigma attached to employees dealing with depression and anxiety. Such attitudes reflect misconceptions and ignorance regarding mental illness. Think about the person who suffers from this, instead of the label. One girl stated, “I am a person, not a diagnosis.”

Chris Ulmer used to be a special education teacher who started filming interviews with his students and posting them on social media. Chris said, “The students in my class were amazing. They were funny, engaging and charismatic… but the rest of our neighborhood didn’t really understand them… “Nobody valued them. I wanted to show off these individuals and help them show the world what they had to offer.”

His page “Special Books by Special Kids” now has more than one million followers and Chris travels the world interviewing children and adults with disabilities and mental illness disorders. His work has been called “inspiring,” “amazing,” and “changing everyone’s view of normal.” He states, “We believe the world is a better place when everyone takes the time to understand each other.” As I watched video after video, I cried. In response to the question ‘what would you like people to know,’ a few interviewees responded with:

“Look me in the eye instead of looking down when you walk by.”

“I’m approachable and you can come say hi and talk to me.”

“Don’t treat me differently, sit down with me and get to know me.”

“I wish people were a little more open minded about disability/ illness, the fact that we all are valuable and important people.”

Ulmer explains, “I travel around the world visiting people with different conditions to prove that no matter how you communicate or what obstacles you face, you’re always deserving of love and acceptance.”

With awareness and education comes understanding and no fear. We fear the unknown and what’s different, and we socially distance ourselves. Ulmer goes on to say, “Some of what people go through is heart-wrenching and we want the world to see that. We want others to know that this is a neglected portion of our society and we can serve them so much better.” He hopes SBSK inspires others to take a moment instead of judging someone. In a stigma free world there would be less barriers for recovery, to live productive lives, and be respected.