Take a moment.

I’ve been thinking about Robin Williams all day.

How could I not? The news of his death is everywhere. It’s become a reason for people to climb atop their soapbox and champion their cause. Some believe we’re too invested in celebrity news and should not mourn the loss of his life so deeply. Others say suicide isn’t newsworthy when numerous innocents are brutally murdered in other parts of the world. Even more point out that we’re too focused on the death of a famous white man when there are people of color who are dying at the hands of others as well as their own.

They’re probably right. More often than not, I’d be among them. I’d take this moment to make a strong political statement about something mental-health related. But for some reason, it doesn’t feel like the right time to do that. I don’t mean to say Robin Williams’ life and death are more important than these causes, or than the life of anyone else. That simply isn’t true.

Instead, I’d like to suggest we all just take a moment. Just pause. Robin Williams was a man with many talents who entertained a lot of people. If he made you laugh or inspired you, honor his memory. Don’t apologize if he or his work meant something to you. Mourn the loss of someone who brought others happiness. Mourn for his family and friends, who lost someone they loved.

But also take this moment to remember others. Don’t lecture about the selfishness of suicide; just remember those who saw no other option. Honor their memory and mourn their loss.

Think also of those who are still with us. Take a look around you and pay attention to those you know and love. Be there for them. Reach out to those who need it, and even those who seem like they don’t. To Write Love On Her Arms said it best:

robin williams

 

 

 
“People need people.”  We could change the course of another person’s life by being there for them. If you are struggling, know there are people who care for you and want to help you get to a better place. Reach out so they can help you. If you feel the need to learn a lesson from the death of Robin Williams, let it be this. I can’t help but feel he’d approve of the message.

Cricket: My state of mind

Shades of lavender, Kelly green and cobalt blue color the strands of Clare’s short-cropped hair. She likes vivid hues; it was once hot pink, and before that, more subtle streaks of color. Her hair is simply one of her colorful identifiers. Her name is Clare Goodspeed, but she often goes by Cricket. It was a moniker chosen as part of an earth education program, and somehow, it’s a perfect fit. “I was in [this program] in high school, and part of it involved teaching fourth and fifth graders about nature. We all took on ‘nature names’ to make it seem more magical, and mine just kind of stuck,” she says.

Cricket, the daughter of two journalists, was born in Hong Kong in 1993. Her family later moved to Oakville in Ontario, Canada, where she spent her childhood. During the already tumultuous years of adolescence, Cricket was diagnosed with Bipolar II disorder, a mood disorder described by recurring episodes of depression accompanied by episodes of hypomania. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, hypomania is a milder form of mania that lacks symptoms like hallucinations and delusions.

Cricket was diagnosed in November 2012, but her “illness adventures” began a few years prior when she was misdiagnosed with depression. “The depression is a bit of a blur, because it was really gradual. There were a lot of time my parents asked, ‘Do you want to see someone about this?’ and nothing came of it,” she says. When Cricket finally received professional help, she saw a psychologist, who officially diagnosed her with depression. “I’m not bitter about (the misdiagnosis) because that’s what it looked like at the time…crying a lot, being down a lot, and feeling hopeless and having bad self esteem and self image,” Cricket remembers. She was placed on a variety of different antidepressants, none of which alleviated her symptoms.

According to a survey taken by the National Depressive and Manic-Depressive Association, 69 percent of patients with bipolar disorder are initially misdiagnosed and more than one-third remained misdiagnosed for 10 years or more. Fortunately, Cricket’s use of antidepressants uncovered her true diagnosis much sooner than that. The drugs, she said, exacerbated her symptoms of mania, which were not evident before.

The road to a proper diagnosis, however, was anything but simple. Cricket admits her medications make her memory hazy; it’s hard for her to remember exactly when things happened, but there are some details that she can clearly recall. One is a date: November 15. Some years ago on that day, Cricket attempted suicide via an overdose of trazodone, an antidepressant she also used as a sleep aid.

She planned it so she would be home alone, with no one to interrupt her; her father and brother were at church for the evening, and her mother was at work. She didn’t make a spectacle of things but simply took the overdose and went to bed. “What made me call the paramedics was feeling my heart beat really hard, but really slow…and getting slower,” she remembers. “It was really painful.” Cricket then picked up the phone from her bedside table and called 911.

“Part way through the conversation I remember wanting to tell them, ‘Nevermind, I’m good…I’ll go to sleep now,’” she says. She didn’t, though, and after the paramedics came, she vomited the remaining undigested pills. Cricket is convinced that is what saved her life.

She remembers everything else through odd details: a paramedic commenting on her messy room; a pressing fear her cats would escape when they helped her outside to the ambulance; and throwing up on a “really cool purse with elephants on it.” The purse was saved, Cricket says, and so was she, due in part to the charcoal she was forced to drink at the hospital. “Weird, eh?” she laughs. The concoction made her teeth black and she remembers using that to make her family laugh. “Here I had just attempted suicide and I was still cracking jokes. I guess that tells you a little bit about how I am.”

There are moments when the emotional toll of her attempt creeps into Cricket’s voice as she retells the story. But in what seems to be her typical fashion, she focuses on the funny moments, even in such a somber memory, and says she is glad she is still here.

Living with bipolar II disorder

Once Cricket was properly diagnosed, finding the right combination of medication became a priority. Even now she is not convinced she and her doctors have found the best combination, and she says it’s an ongoing process to figure it out.

Common misconceptions dictate that medication fixes or eliminates symptoms of illness, but in many cases it reduces the severity of those symptoms to create a more stable state. Such is the case for Cricket, who still cycles through episodes of mania and depression.

“Sometimes it’s actually really awesome,” she says of her manic episodes, which typically last five days. “You feel great. You get a big ego and feel invincible and impulsive. It’s really fun when you’re at parties, but it’s also a dangerous state to be in at parties.” Cricket remembers wanting to try marijuana and other drugs during a manic state, which would otherwise be unlikely behavior. What frustrates Cricket most often in manic states, though, is the inability to sleep. Her boyfriend is familiar with this frustration as well. “He needs his sleep, and suddenly I don’t,” she laughs. “I want to stay up and party! I want to play video games, and play music, and sing and dance, and do art and run around. And it’ll be 10 p.m. on a weekday and he has to be up at 5 a.m. the next day. I get really frustrated when he wants to go to bed. I’m getting better at understanding his needs too, but it’s hard when you’re in a state like that.”

However, none of this compares to a mixed state, in which one experiences both mania and depression. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, someone in a mixed state might feel agitated, have trouble sleeping, experience major changes in appetite and have suicidal thoughts. Cricket understands how it is likelier to feel suicidal in a mixed state. “When you’re in a depressive state and you want to die, you don’t have the energy to do anything most of the time,” she says. “But when you’re in a mixed state, you have the mentality of being completely depressed and totally irritable and easily angered and you have all of this energy out of nowhere so it’s really dangerous. I’ve never been more frustrated in my life than I have being in a mixed state…just existing that way is difficult.”

Working with bipolar II disorder

Ninety per cent of Canadians with serious mental illnesses are unemployed due largely to prejudice about their conditions, according to an article in the Toronto Star. The article cites a sweeping new report by the Aspiring Workforce report, commissioned by the Mental Health Commission of Canada. Many of the affected Canadians who responded to a survey by the Aspiring Workforce researchers reported that the stigma surrounding mental illness was a major barrier to their return to the workforce.

“People are afraid,” one survey respondent said. “They don’t understand (mental illness) and don’t want to be educated. They don’t want to realize it is the same as diabetes or epilepsy.”

There are additional reports of workplace discrimination related to mental illness. According to the Manitoba Human Rights Commission, 31 percent of disability cases were based on a mental health issue in 2013. The majority of those complaints were workplace related.

A story by CBC News furthers the mental health dialogue, relaying accounts of workplace discrimination. The Manitoba Human Rights Commission reports complaints regarding mental health issues are increasing. Chris Summerville, head of the Manitoba Schizophrenia Society, said the the stigma is getting worse and employers need to take this seriously, according to the article.

Cricket has not experienced outright workplace discrimination, but feels the difficulty of staying employed while learning to handle her diagnosis. Her job history includes a stint as a camp counselor, a worker at a plant nursery and a dental office assistant. The last job was her favorite, but her time there ended for the same reason as the others: She was not well enough to work. Cricket says she would start crying uncontrollably or get overwhelmed. She would feel stable for a while and think she was okay to work, but she would inevitably feel worse and have to resign. She also remembers that many employers and coworkers tried to be understanding of her illness at first, but were less willing to deal with it over time.

“What’s a struggle for me is still not being able to work, and being poor, and not being able to go to school—all because of my illness,” she says. Cricket left high school early due to her illness and was only two credits short of graduation. She is currently enrolled in a program to finish those credits, but admits she is too exhausted and depressed to complete it. “Right now, I’m having a hard time feeding myself and keeping up on chores,” she says. “Being able to do that is a victory right now.” Though she is focused on being able to complete these tasks and make any progress she can on her path to wellness, Cricket has larger goals she would still like to achieve. But for Cricket, ever the realist, the question is not when she will achieve them, but if she will be able to.

“I’ve been like this for so long now that I can’t picture when it wasn’t like this,” Cricket says. “It makes me feel like it’s not just me being sick, like this is how I am. I’m incapable, and it feels like I never will be, and I honestly don’t know if I ever will be. And that breaks my heart because I know if I wasn’t sick I could help people.”

While this isn’t a new revelation for Cricket, it’s clear that it’s a tough reality to resign to. When she speaks of her future, the sarcastic, self-deprecating humor is gone, and an emotional wistfulness takes its place. “I want to do social work in the military and be a mental health counselor, but I don’t know if I’ll ever get to the point where I’ll be able to handle a job like that,” she sighs. “Plus I need to get a bachelor’s and master’s degree in social work, and right now I can’t finish my two high school credits. It feels like I’m totally stuck.”

Being the change: fighting stigma

Cricket may be uncertain of her professional future, but she’s sure of one thing: Mental illness stigma is harmful, and we must all do our part to eliminate it. Unlike many who experience mental illness, Cricket has no issue with sharing her story. Especially, she says, if it means she’s making a difference.

“When I got misdiagnosed with depression in high school my best friends just stopped talking to me…what assholes. They said they didn’t know how to deal with me and I was too emotionally unstable,” she says. “I’ve been lucky enough to pick friends nowadays who are pretty understanding. But the average person I meet…if they find out I have bipolar disorder they jump to a lot of conclusions, which are all wrong because they don’t understand the illness, basically.”

Those conclusions drive Cricket to be more open about her diagnosis, she says. With increased education and greater understanding, there is a lesser chance others will have to deal with the kind of “friends” Cricket did in high school.

“I try to be open with my diagnosis because it’s a relatively common illness, and people just hide it because of the stigma. But the only way to break down stigma is to talk about it! Lots of people don’t understand what being bipolar means, so if I do tell them I have it, I usually make sure I have time to give a brief explanation of what it entails. Because they think I’m crazy and dangerous otherwise…and I’m totally not,” she chuckles.

Education will happen, Cricket says, when those who have mental illnesses share their stories, and when everyone else makes an effort to be understanding and supportive.

“I want people to know that we’re still people and we are just sick…we’re not crazy,” Cricket says. “And we need love and understanding and stigma is just as big of a problem as the illness itself. Just talking to people about it can help. If I can change a few people’s minds, that’s good enough for me.”

Sharing the spotlight: what’s the deal with celebrities and mental illness?

The news broke on October 30, 2010. A young woman took time off work to enter a treatment facility to confront “physical and emotional issues” after an alleged altercation with someone at work. Every major media outlet ran the story, and just as its coverage extended well beyond the average news cycle, so did the speculation. Was it drugs? An eating disorder? A mental breakdown?

The greater question was, why was this in the news? Since when did we start caring about these kind of issues so much? It’s simple, really: the woman is singer/actress Demi Lovato, and her mental health struggles made for front-page news. She later acknowledged the aforementioned issues were bulimia, “self-medicating” with drugs and alcohol, self-injury and bipolar disorder. Since completing her inpatient treatment at Timberline Knolls in January 2011, Lovato has spoken openly about her experiences and was even awarded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in May 2013 for her commitment to mentorship of young adults experiencing mental health challenges.

It’s not an unfamiliar story. It seems that mental illness appears most often in the media under a few circumstances, and a celebrity diagnosis is chief among them. Our avid consumption of these stories could mean several things: Do we care about them only because we are immensely interested in every detail of the lives of public figures? More importantly, what is the impact of celebrities’ self-disclosure on the perception of mental illness?

There is a lack of comprehensive research on this topic, but it stands to reason that among the complexity of the answer are social attitudes. I asked some students and alumni of the University of La Verne how they felt about the matter. Their answer? Well, it’s complicated.

Thirty-five students responded to an informal survey that asked respondents to share their opinions on the disclosure of mental illness by celebrities and private citizens alike. Of those 35 respondents, 18 believed that people should disclose their mental illnesses if and when they feel comfortable and/or if they want to combat mental health stereotypes, and 15 believed disclosure should happen only when there is risk of harm to oneself or to others. All respondents said their answers to the question also applied if the person in question was a celebrity.

However, the feelings are complicated when the motivation behind disclosure is considered. Most respondents said they support celebrities that disclose their mental illnesses, but wonder if they do it to gain attention or sympathy.

This skepticism is not exclusive to La Verne students. British comedian Bill Oddie criticized celebrity disclosure of mental illness in November 2013, as told by The Telegraph. Oddie, who once spoke about suffering severe depression after losing his job as a presenter on Springwatch, has since said he will limit his work with mental health organizations because his involvement hinders the cause:

“I have stepped back from my charity work for bipolar. Despite having had my own experience with the condition, I fear that it has become something of a ‘fashionable’ condition to have in this day and age … It is a serious condition, but, suddenly, people are making careers out of it. Stephen Fry brought a lot of attention to it, and Ruby Wax, but I don’t think that the life of a celebrity can be compared to, or relatable to, a normal, everyday life, so I don’t know how much good it really does.” (The Telegraph)

It’s logical to question a celebrity’s motivation for sharing any information, and this is especially true regarding mental illness. There are many instances in which erratic celebrity behavior was later explained away with a disclosure of mental illness. Are the connections between these acts and mental illness legitimate? It seems hard to confirm this, but as many respondents stated, one must wonder: why would anyone (let alone a celebrity), given the stigma attached to mental illness, lie about having one? I’m not sure this question has a definite answer.

However, one large question does remain: can celebrity self-disclosure of mental illness reduce stigma? Thirty-two respondents believed it could, and the remaining three disagreed because they question the motives behind the disclosure.

“I believe that a celebrity, especially a well respected celebrity, can reduce the stigma and make the public realize that it doesn’t matter how pretty, how rich, or how famous you are, mental illness affects everyone in some way or another,” senior criminology and psychology major Ariana Lamb said.

Those who said “yes” almost unanimously stated a similar belief. Some respondents reasoned that raising awareness of the prevalence of mental illness matters most; who cares if a celebrity is the one to do it?

It is perhaps easier to examine this issue by placing Demi Lovato under the lens. Her music, book, documentary and even her tattoos reveal that she has made her diagnoses part of her identity, celebrity or not. It is clear that her position as a young celebrity and her candor regarding her illnesses have elicited an overwhelmingly positive response from fans. The proof is in her Twitter feed. It’s likely that Lovato’s efforts have made her more successful, but the fact that she’s making a profit from them does not discount the attention she brings to an issue that affects millions of Americans.

“[Demi’s] fans can see her as a success story as well as a story of hope,” University of La Verne junior Ashlee Meyer said. “And from that, her fans probably feel more connected to her. She also uses her story to try to help others facing similar issues and even provides various services to do so. As long as the celebrity isn’t ashamed and is proactive about helping others with similar situations, I think it can be helpful in reducing the negative stigmas surrounding mental illnesses. It’s all in the way it’s handled.”

Perhaps the celebrity subject is the only reason we pay attention to these stories. While that’s disappointing, it points out that maybe, just maybe, we need celebrities to self-disclose mental illnesses. If they are comfortable and willing enough to shine a light on a highly stigmatized issue, perhaps the rest of us who are dealing with it will also feel comfortable doing so. Nearly every mental health advocacy group says that education is key to elimination of stigma, and that begins by talking about it. Sometimes, it takes a celebrity to take that first step.

Fort Hood: a careless media creates more stigma

A shooting at Fort Hood military base on Wednesday left four people dead, including the gunman, and sixteen more injured. The gunman, identified by multiple government sources as Army Specialist Ivan Lopez, 33, took his own life.

Shortly after the news broke, the public musings began: Why did he do this? Was he mentally ill? The subsequent coverage of the shooting did more to reveal the problematic way the media handles mental illness than it did about the shooting itself.

Lt. Gen. Mark Milley spoke at a press conference late Wednesday night and shared several facts about the gunman: He was a soldier who served four months in Iraq in 2011, he was married and had family in Killeen, Texas. General Milley also stated Lopez was under evaluation at Fort Hood for post traumatic stress disorder after complaining of a traumatic brain injury. Lopez had also received treatment for anxiety and depression, Milley said.

These facts then dominated the headlines and ledes of many major news outlets, including Reuters, The New York Daily News, CBS News and CNN. Even The New York Times was not exempt:

A soldier who was being evaluated for post-traumatic stress disorder opened fire at Fort Hood on Wednesday, killing three people and wounding 16 before killing himself, the authorities said. The shooting set off a huge police response and shut down the sprawling Army base, the same facility where a deadly rampage by an officer resulted in 13 deaths in 2009. (The New York Times)

Why does this matter? While it is true that the media has a duty to share information, it should also report that information responsibly. Should the gunman’s mental condition have been disclosed? Perhaps, if the information was relevant to the story. However, most news stories made subtle connections between Lopez’s mental health and the shooting when there was not yet enough information to indicate a relationship between the two. Stories that included Lopez’s mental health information should have placed it lower in the story, since its relevance was not yet known.

Al Jazeera America reported today that Lopez’s mental condition was likely not the main factor in the shooting. Milley said the investigation was ongoing, but that authorities believe the shooting was prompted by an argument the gunman had with fellow soldiers.

What does this new information mean? It shows that the media may have rushed to make connections and complete the story when they should have reported cautiously. By jumping to the conclusion that mental illness was an instrumental cause in the shooting, the media did a disservice to every person diagnosed with mental illness. One in four adults—approximately 61.5 million Americans—experience mental illness in a given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Such careless reporting only increases stigma, which in turn discourages many of these Americans from seeking help for their illnesses.

This sloppy reporting specifically reinforced one assumption that all mental health activists have worked hard to counter: that mentally ill people are extremely violent and dangerous. Despite widespread mental health problems, less than two percent of the American population meet diagnostic criteria for severe and persistent mental illness. Research shows that adolescent and young adult perpetrators of mass shootings often meet these criteria, but it also indicates that even within the highest-risk subgroups of the SPMI population, most do not commit more violent acts against others. Instead, people with SPMI are much more likely to be victims of violent crime than to commit it.

Inclusion of such information in these Fort Hood stories would have made a significant difference in the tone of the stories. Although there have been several mass shootings in recent years, these tragedies are highly publicized anomalies that do not describe the behavior of all mentally ill people. The media must remember to cover mental illness responsibly and not make assumptions that reinforce stigma.

It’s official! getmental will host a panel discussion at the University of La Verne that talks about mental illness, the media, and stigma. The event is open to the public and will include lively discussion from esteemed journalists, mental health professionals and advocates. Please come and spread the word! Details are in the following flyer.

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