When you find out that someone is mentally ill or hear the words “mental illness,” what image is painted in your mind? Is it someone running around a padded room wearing a straitjacket? Are they unstable? Unapproachable? Is there a apparent line that separates you from them? What would happen if that picture was you?
Certain movies in Hollywood fall into the habit of negatively portraying those who have been diagnosed with mental illnesses as ‘scary’ or ‘crazy,’ when many are actually high-functioning, everyday people who just want to be understood.
This common misconception causes many to stigmatize certain illnesses (schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, anxiety, etc), and fear the individual. Having those fears can prevent many from speaking up and seeking help if they are experiencing certain symptoms, due to a lack of understanding, proper education, and lastly, seeing how mental illness has been negatively depicted in the media.
Some of my favorite movies/shows have revolved around various types of mental illness, and they aren’t always accurately represented by the media in a positive light. Donnie Darko, Gone Girl, Girl Interrupted, American Horror Story: Asylum (hands down one of the best seasons- let’s argue), Pretty Little Liars ( I’m embarrassed to say that I’ve kept up with them for so long), Requiem For A Dream, Agnes of God, The Shining, Split, and Fight Club can all be easily categorized in the horror, thriller, or drama genre.
The mood of these movies often leave the audience feeling on edge, which helps to further create the belief that there is a huge separation between those characters and the people watching. When in reality, these characters who exhibit certain behaviors that identify with having mental health issues, are often exaggerated and falsely represented.
My perception of mental illness has always been “that’ll never happen to me.” I would watch those films and television shows that helped me morph and compartmentalize those who are mentally ill into a safe yet distant box that was something I wouldn’t have to deal with. Unfortunately, this way of thinking would have a pretty negative impact on my mental health.
I’m adopted, but inside the family; my parents who raised me are technically my grandparents. My biological parent met at the same group home. They fell in love, and eventually had me. My mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia when she was 14-years old, and my father suffered from years of physical abuse from his father, which eventually caused traumatic brain injuries and other psychological issues.
My memories of my mother are vivid yet brief, similar to flashback clips in a movie. I remember her smiling and laughing, and those that knew her said that she lived her life happily and to the fullest, despite her diagnosis. My father has made a lot of progress, but still has bad days whenever he thinks about my mother, who died of cancer when I was 6.
Schizophrenia affects roughly one percent of Americans and “interferes with a person’s ability to think clearly, manage emotions, make decisions and relate to others,” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Delusions and hallucinations are also a major aspect of living with this condition, and victims typically begin experiencing them between the ages of 16 and 30, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
I’ve always known that she was schizophrenic, which was something I felt anxious about, but I stored that information away into a mental box that was never to be opened, forcing myself to believe that I’d never have to deal with mental health issues, let alone schizophrenia, because I was “normal.”
It wasn’t until the summer my mom had major eye surgery, I was working two jobs, and stopped taking my birth control pills after five years (which caused my hormones to go out of wack), that depression and anxiety hit me full swing. I first felt extremely depressed, which then turned into me worrying about anything and everything, starting with the fear that I would develop schizophrenia like my biological mom, since it can be passed genetically. It became an obsession that I couldn’t shake, which was the beginning of a year of constant worrying.
I would stay up almost every night, googling symptoms of the disorder, trying to desperately find ways to prove or disprove that I either had it or didn’t have it. I could not let it go, no matter how hard I tried. I believed that at any moment, I would start having hallucinations or hearing voices, and feared being left alone. I have never felt anxiety in that way before. I was compulsive and obsessive, and couldn’t relax, sleep, or concentrate without my mind replaying “what if” over and over. Panic attacks would happen frequently, any time, any place, and my body and mind were in constant “flight” mode.
The thing is, I wasn’t worried about just one thing. After I would obsess over one issue, I would worry about something else, and the cycle would continue. It was like I couldn’t control myself from finding something to worry about. For instance, I’d watch Grey’s Anatomy, and see a patient being diagnosed with a brain tumor, and suddenly my headache would mean I too could have a brain tumor, and the obsession would start again.
I began manifesting the symptoms of the thoughts I would have, worried about far fetched situations or things that could happen that I knew never would.
Me: “Worrying, sis. Worrying.”
My brain would be like, “yeah… it’s highly unlikely that this will happen, true, true… But what if it DID?” or “remember when this happened like, 3 years ago? I mean, there’s a chance it didn’t happen the way you think it did, but either way, I want you to think about it for the rest of the day. Actually, make it the entire week. You’re welcome. BYYYYYYYYIEEEEE.”
This usually resulted in yet another cycle of constant researching and overthinking to the point where it became debilitating. I would be triggered by the things I watched that made their way into my subconscious, constantly thinking that something was wrong with me, afraid of my thoughts, in a state of anxiety, with a fear of losing control. And all the while, kept a smile on my face so no one would know.
It was exhausting and difficult, but fortunately I had a strong support system who got me through it, constantly reassuring me that I was okay and loved.
It’s always someone else’s problem until it happens to you.
And that is my point: mental illness seems out of reach until effects to you, and it doesn’t matter who or how “normal” you think you are. I was so put off guard when anxiety hit me that hard. It scared me when I would meet people who had severe mental illnesses, because they worked with me… they were in my classes… they were my friends, my family members… This meant that the perfect little line that I believed kept people who aren’t mentally ill from the ones who are, would begin to blur to the point where it no longer existed. And even more so, I felt ridiculous.
Here I was, worrying and obsessing about situations that would more than likely never happen, when there are people who actually HAVE these illnesses or issues, and you would never know because they are just like everyone else, surviving (and thriving).
Meet Kate, a 17-year-old living with schizophrenia who has gained a lot of attention on social media for some of her recent drawings illustrating her hallucinations. You can see all of her work here.
She explained during an interview with Huffington Post, “I personally feel like the media portrays any kind of mental illness in a way that makes people afflicted look incompetent, violent and lazy. While that may be the case for some, most people I know that suffer from some type of mental illness are normal people. The media lacks a portrayal of real people who have to live with it. People are afraid to be open about it for fear of being ostracized or looked down upon. I understand the risks of being public about hallucinating bugs and voices, but I’m willing to take those risks in an attempt to normalize mental illness (by making it acceptable to talk about and inspiring people to seek help if they need it) and to educate people.”
Having a mental illness doesn’t define who you are. We need to be aware that there are many silent faces of mental illness, and we all break the same. I urge everyone to help create safe spaces for people to talk openly about their diagnosis, so that we can bridge the gap between what’s seen on the big screen and reality.
Written by Teresa Johnson