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Stop Equating Mental Illness and Bad Behavior

By Cindy Elder, Executive Director, NAMI Rhode Island

The Providence Journal, March 25, 2017

Crazy. Unhinged. Nuts. Insane. Unstable. These words fly across our nation like shrapnel, often missing the target and hitting the most vulnerable bystanders: people who actually live with a mental health diagnosis.

One in five Americans today lives with a mental illness. It touches nearly every family, every workplace, every faith community, every school and every political party. Mental illness does not discriminate in terms of race, ethnicity, gender identity, socioeconomic status or other identifiers.

Why, then, do we avert our eyes, close our minds and zipper our mouths when it comes to openly addressing the real challenges of mental illness? Why do we hurl insults like “crazy” toward people who have acted immorally, implying that mental illness is to blame?

In fact, people living with severe mental illness are 10 times more likely to be victims of crime than the general population.

Let’s stop blaming bad behavior on mental illness, and call it what it is: bad behavior. And let’s start acknowledging that mental illnesses are brain disorders as deserving of research, diagnosis and treatment as diseases affecting any other part of the body.

If prominent people in the news described as “crazy” have an underlying mental illness, I hope they have both the courage and support to seek a diagnosis and treatment. Some of our greatest leaders have lived with mental illness, and they now serve as inspiration to the millions of people who are striving to lead successful, meaningful lives while coping with a difficult diagnosis.

A study by Jonathan Davidson of Duke University Medical Center determined that half of the United States’ 37 presidents between 1776 and 1974 lived with a mental illness, 27 percent of them while in office. Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy are on the list.

Rather than write off our leaders as “mentally ill,” let’s judge them based on their actions, their words and, dare I say, the facts.

Before we toss off words like “unhinged,” let’s walk in the shoes of the profoundly brave people who have come to terms with a mental health diagnosis. At the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Rhode Island, I am privileged to work with many individuals who have transformed their lived experience with mental illness into careers of compassion, where they devote their lives to helping others on the pathway toward hope and recovery. Day in and day out, they demonstrate what it means to live well with a mental illness. Sadly, they often do this without the support of the larger community.

President Ronald Reagan was universally supported and praised when he shared with the world his diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. He and First Lady Nancy Reagan helped open the conversation around this complex and devastating diagnosis, while exhibiting grace and courage. They helped families across America face Alzheimer’s with greater support and understanding, knowing they shared the same battle faced by a president.

It’s time to move mental illness out of the shadows and show compassion toward people who are doing their best to live good lives that are defined by more than a diagnosis. To do that, we have to stop using “mental illness” as an insult and instead help people seek a diagnosis and treatment.

— Cindy Elder is executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Rhode Island.

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