Previous generations used to whisper the word “cancer.” Today, we speak about it openly as we walk for a cure. Previous generations used to hide the developmentally disabled. Today, we celebrate them in the Special Olympics. In an era when medical conditions from AIDS to Alzheimer’s have found widespread acceptance in mainstream society, one glaring social stigma remains: serious mental illness. Although it is estimated that a quarter of all Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness at some time in their lives, few acknowledge their struggle publicly due to shame and fear. For millions of Americans who must take medication daily for their brains to function normally, the stigma takes an even greater toll, making it more difficult to muster the treatment, research efforts, and empathy that this population desperately needs.
In a recent opinion piece about “Silver Linings Playbook,” a movie about a man with bipolar disorder, former Rhode Island Representative Patrick Kennedy wrote that more people with serious mental illnesses should talk publicly about their disease. “We need more discussion in the real world, and less shame,” he wrote in the piece, posted on The Daily Beast, which referred to the enduring taboo of mental illness as “one of the great civil-rights challenges of our time.” Kennedy’s call is all the more powerful since he is one of the few public figures to speak frankly about his own battle with bipolar disorder. After crashing his car into a barrier on Capitol Hill in 2006 — and telling police that he was heading to a House vote in the middle of the night — Kennedy held an unusually candid press conference in which he gave a glimpse of how it feels to realize that your mind is misfiring. “Every day I’m on my knees thanking God that I didn’t hurt somebody,” he said.
Back then, Kennedy emphasized the need to respect the privacy of the mentally ill. He even authored a bill to give more teeth to the Health Care Information Privacy Act, arguing that many people don’t seek treatment because of the fear that their medical history will be disclosed. But today, he is asking more mentally ill people to step into the spotlight. This new call is an admission that more work needs to be done to improve health services for the mentally ill, many of whom live in a revolving door of emergency hospitalization and relapse. Better treatment for mental illness requires a society that talks far more openly about it.