Guest contributors run the gamut, but they all pretty much rock.
Guest Contributor Bryan O’Nolan
The memory is firmly set, finely attenuated: he sat across the room from me, the room simultaneously coldly clinical, stale and bland. It was a room never intended to be recognized as a space or remembered as a place one had ever been. The chairs must have been tolerably comfortable once, now they were faded and worn. By the door a white noise generator hushed. I remember it well.
In that room -- that beige, impersonal room: that empty, impersonal space -- we sat, and we spoke. We had done the same many times: he in conflict, divided; I, a caring, directed influence trying to help him cope and grow and manage.
He had made some progress, I recall, but there was more.
He is there, in my memory; his eyes are cast down: they are grey, as I remember them. His shoulders are slumped, if only ever so slightly, in a momentary, melancholy sag. He is a man, a young man: a tired, young man, haphazardly enveloped in his clothes; it is as if his laundry pile had accosted him in ambush that morning and won. He is exhausted, directionless and empty.
He would be dead in the next twelve hours.
He would be dead in the next twelve hours, but in my memory he is alive and breathing. We speak: I, in this memory, a mental health counselor, working with the severely mentally ill, which I was: he, in this memory, is a man in his mid-twenties, a man just realizing that the diagnosis I and others had given him -- schizophrenia, paranoid type -- might be real, which it was.
He would be dead in the next twelve hours, asphyxiated.
The moment I remember most is not the one I failed to recognize in the moment. It is one that after the panicked phone call came and the tears came and my breath came short and dark and terrible, came then and many times thereafter.
This man I embraced and welcomed and cared for and cheered for was gone.
He was dead.
He was dead and it had been my job to promote his health and to help him circumvent this end.
He was dead and it will stay forever with me. I regret that the clearest moment of our time together is not our last meeting, but the phone call: I am panicked and ashamed and falling into an armchair, or I’m calling, all thumbs, to his family.
I failed them; I failed him.
Yes, he was mentally ill.
He was a young man: his illness was young and still yet new-formed. A celebrity had been in contact with him; his supposed friends bullied him and fed his delusions. He was given to my care after he had spent an unwilling stay in an institution; he met with me as a condition of his freedom.
He struggled, he suffered. He was alone and scared. He fought. His world made little sense and it made complete, troubled sense. He loved his cat, his only friend. He worked for his father, which gave his life regular if insufficient meaning. His past -- his terrible, traumatic, offensive past: his deeply troubled, unsettled and offensive past -- bore down upon him.
He was mentally ill.
It was my job to help him, though little could I help him.
He was mentally ill, as am I.
I am alive because the intervention of my family caused me to seek help and live. Most days I am well, happy and productive; I have my down days, days my wife can see coming because she knows me better than I know myself. I am simultaneously better because of and better than my medications.
Mental illness is a struggle, but I fight. My client did; my clients did.
He died alone and ashamed, with a plastic bag and a tank of gas intended for children’s birthday parties, celebrations of living his final companions in death.
He was mentally ill.
I miss him every damn day.
* * *
The term “mentally ill” has been used frequently in recent times as a stand-in for some hated territory beyond “crazy” and “insane.” Alleged comedian Jimmy Kimmel recently called the president “mentally ill.” Joy Behar recently described Vice President Mike Pence’s Christian faith as “mental illness.” Qualified to formally diagnose a mental illness neither Mr. Kimmel nor Ms. Behar are; in fact, though I was once certified to do so, I can not -- nor ever could, as I have not met, interviewed and formally assessed him -- lay a diagnosis upon President Trump.
The problem here is not the speaker’s assessment of the president, but rather their use of a term with a formal definition. The term “mentally ill” has been codified as a formal, technical term. There is a governmentally recognized distinction between those who are severely mentally ill and those who are severely and persistently mentally ill.
By using the term as an insult, Kimmel and Behar and anyone else so speaking are stigmatizing a great many conditions of which sufferers and their families are often already ashamed. When shooting survivor David Hogg asserts that the mentally ill should not have guns, he is equating all people with mental health diagnoses with the evil young man who killed seventeen people.
This is ill-informed, unfair and stupid.
Reinforcing the stigma of illness also reinforces the stigma of treatment. This costs lives.
Kimmel and Behar were most likely too caught up in their partisan rending of garments to think much on those they hurt, but they are foolishly and coolly allowing millions to be disparaged to score points partisan political.
* * *
We have this strange myopia in our culture when it comes to words. We are taught about sticks and stones as children but then treat words as violence as adults. Too often, our allegedly thick skins shrivel to mere paper armor when the insults fly. What is seen as an actionable insult is so often countered with the word snowflake that civil discourse might soon be couched in formal terms like a 19th-century duel. The constant tension between denotation and connotation, between the dictionary definition and the emotional color we bring to words, threatens to tear us, as a people, apart. Too often we find our struggles fought in pointed barbs.
When I was a kid, the words retard and retarded were tossed around pejoratively. These words were derived from the technical term mental retardation which, stripped of its negative connotation, is a reasonably accurate description of the condition. Naturally, people with the condition and their families did not like the stigmatizing effect this use of the word had.
So far, so good.
The next step is where it gets strange. A movement arose which resulted in a change of terminology. What had been called mental retardation became intellectual disability. Instead of changing the underlying problem (people who have intellectual problems are still inherently endowed with human dignity and should not be a tool for insult or an object of derision) the term used was changed.
This is a dangerous pattern.
When we take technical terms and, through a kind of linguistic alchemy, make of them an insult and then, instead of challenging the underlying stigma, we change the technical term we create or continue a futile linguistic spiral where the terms of hate are changed but the hate lives on.
* * *
I would be in great error if I made so great a show out of what should not be done about mental illness and then did not put ink to a word or two about what can. Mental illness is, often by its nature, isolating. Sufferers isolate, sometimes out of shame, sometimes because the symptoms themselves drive people away. Many families of sufferers isolate as well, sometimes out of shame, sometimes because they do not themselves understand how to begin to answer the questions others will ask.
There are times when a person with a mental illness just needs to be alone.
This is the exception.
What people with mental illnesses, of any severity, need most of all is companionship. They want someone to be with them out of common humanity, caring, or love. With many illnesses, particularly those most severe, this may not be easy. It may even be difficult.
The answer to this -- the answer to all of this! -- is understanding.
If you are diagnosed with a mental illness, consult with your doctors and counselors as to the specific reasons for it, and know that mental illness is as unique as the person diagnosed with it.
If you have a family member who you believe has some sort of mental illness, get them to a doctor or emergency room.
If you have a family member who has a diagnosed mental illness, get all the information you can about the diagnosis, the prognosis and the treatment. Consider whether or not a support group, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness is right for you. Find out how best to support and help your loved one; a new diagnosis is a difficult time for all involved and you will be having your own struggles coping and managing. Take care of yourself, as well.
If you and your family have not been touched by mental illness, I am happy for you. (No, really!) I would, however, ask that you keep an open, curious mind when you hear the term mental illness in the news, in conversation or on social media. There’s more to mental illness than shooting up schools and ranting naked on park benches, trust me.
Bryan O’Nolan is a former mental health counselor. He can be found on twitter @BryanONolan. He has been diagnosed with Major Depressive Disorder and Anxiety.