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Our society is still giving mental illness a bum rap.

Recently, DC Comics decided to kill off Superman. The assassin was to be an escapee from a galactic mental institution. DC's plan made news headlines. However, a protest by the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill stopped the plot. NAMI objected to the unfounded stereotyping of people with mental illness as deranged killers.

NAMI is currently spearheading a nationwide campaign to combat the social stigma of mental illness.

Mental illnesses are far more common than cancer, diabetes, heart disease or arthritis. The National Institute of Mental Health estimated one out of four families in this country will have a loved one with a serious mental illness. More hospital beds are occupied by people with mental illness than with any other disease.

Serious mental illnesses include thought disorders like schizophrenia, affective disorders like depression and manic depression (now called bipolar disorder), and disabling phobias, autism and attention deficit disorder (common in children).

As common as these illnesses are, the multitudes who suffer from them still endure a social stigma -- a subtle and not-so-subtle shame and ridicule our society places on people afflicted. The stigma keeps mental illness in the closet. It prevents people from seeking treatment and it stifles funding for services and research. It closes minds and fuels discrimination.

One person afflicted with mental illness said, "The stigma is harder to deal with than the illness itself." No one need be reluctant, for example, to write "diabetic" on a job application, but to jot down any hint of a history of mental illness would probably kill one's chances of a job completely.

We are becoming more senstive to the needs of a wide diversity of people. People with serious mental illness are living their lives more normally in our communities, workplaces and parishes.

This social stigma shows itself in slang words like nuts, wacko, psycho and lunatic. Films, TV and comics especially exacerbate the problem. How many popular movies have portrayed serial killers or violence perpetrated by "psychos"? Yet the term "psychopath" is not the same as "psychotic."

Psychosis is a very common symptom of serious mental illness. It means an inability to distinguish real from unreal experience and generally responds to antipsychotic medication. The kind of psychopathy (which literally means "sickness of the psyche") that sometimes results in criminal activity describes a pattern of behavior that does not respond to medication and, in fact, is fairly uncommon.

Violence among people with mental illness, it must be stressed, is not common or typical. They are more frequently the victims of crime than its perpetrators. Low-budget horror movies featuring stereotypically "psychotic" killers are in no way realistic depictions of mental illness.

In fact, one rarely sees accurate portrayals of people suffering from mental illness in the media. USA Today recently reported the writers of "Benny and Joon," a film currently making the rounds, decided "to dance around the subject of Joon's affliction (schizophrenia)." In our age of candor, mental illness is one of the few taboos no one wants to think about.

The real-life stories of persons coping with serious mental illness are accounts of great courage and determination.

It is offensive to depersonalize people who have a biologically based disorder. Mental illnesses are not the same as mental retardation. They are not the result of weak character or bad parenting or inadequate religion. Serious mental illnesses, like schizophrenia, clinical depression or bipolar disorder, are neurobiological disorders, brain diseases. They are biologically based and no one's fault.

With good treatment, many people stricken with these disorders can function in everyday society, hold responsible jobs, have families, go to school, have hobbies and enjoy life. We have learned to stop making fun of, stereotyping and stigmatizing the handicapped or developmentally disabled. In fact, the label has changed to "differently abled." People groan sometimes about politically correct terminology for one thing and another, but what a small price to pay for a world that is more compassionate and just.
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Author:Heffern, Rich
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 2, 1993
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