I was mindlessly watching my clothes tumble in the spin cycle when I was approached by a jovial gentleman in a bathrobe and slippers from elsewhere in my apartment building. He’d come downstairs to check on the availability of the machines. I had on my laundry day clothes, and he turned around and asked about the tee-shirt I was wearing.
“‘Schizophrenia,’” he read aloud. “Is that the name of your band?”
“No,” I replied kindly, “it’s my diagnosis. I’m a schizophrenic.”
I pointed to the back of the shirt which has the Bring Change to Mind logo on it and continued.
“I’m a blogger for this nonprofit organization who are working to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental illness.”
I went on to describe the 2009 Bring Change to Mind PSA which featured a number of people milling about Grand Central Station wearing shirts like the one I had on, with their various mental illness diagnoses printed on them.
“I never would have guessed that you had schizophrenia,” he said. “You’ve always been polite to me. You’re articulate. You show a degree of intellect and education.”
“Thank you,” I said. “Mass media and pop culture often portray people who struggle with mental illness in a disparaging light. I guess it’s done for effect, but I think it’s cheap and does a lot of damage by reinforcing negative stereotypes.”
He nodded in agreement and then asked, “How do you control it?”
I answered, “With therapy and medication.”
“You don’t appear to be too heavily drugged.”
“Not too heavily. I get a monthly injection of a timed-release medicine and I supplement that with a few daily meds. It’s better than it used to be. It took a long time to find something that worked for me. Plus I was med-noncompliant for many years, afraid of what the various side effects might do to me.”
“Like losing your creative edge?” he asked.
“Exactly. It wasn’t warranted. At least not with my current regimen.”
“Well, whatever you’re doing, it seems to be working for you,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed our little conversations.”
Whenever I’m afforded the opportunity to discuss mental health with another person, I do my best to inform and educate, based on my personal experience and research that I’ve done. The finer points I leave to more in-depth interactions, and those happen, too, but I find that people are more willing to listen when I hone the discussion to specific answers and/or illustrations. I like to keep the conversations focused, answering any questions the other person might have about mental illness and stigma directly and without condescension. Sometimes the conversation begins when you least expect it, so it’s good to be prepared to speak your truth and share your knowledge.
Since 1949, May has been observed as Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States, and May 24th is World Schizophrenia Day. However, neither of these noteworthy events seem to get the press that many other dates do. It feels like we’re still in the grassroots stages of bringing the public up to speed about the stigma against people who live with mental illnesses. It is encouraging to see schools involved in socially conscious activities where mental health is concerned because it opens possibilities for a more enlightened future. But there’s still so much more work to be done to achieve a stigma-free society. This is where sharing our personal stories and the information that is available through sources like Bring Change to Mind and Mental Health America comes into play. And participation in events like the annual NAMI Walks bring a degree of visibility to the cause, especially when there’s media coverage.
Educating the public about stigma is the main challenge. Seeking medical parity for people living with mental illness is another. Employers need to offer insurance coverage for employees suffering from mental health challenges. A broken limb is not met with skepticism, name calling, or mockery. Human resource departments are getting better about employees taking mental health days off, and companies frequently offer benefits like a limited number therapy sessions.
My birthday was in the first week of May. I’ve had two during these COVID times. Last year I hosted a party on Zoom. This year I ate pizza and played Animal Crossing: New Horizons. I baked a cake for World Schizophrenia Day and invited one of my best friends to a FaceTime soirée. Mondays are my assigned scheduled hours for doing laundry. Perhaps I’ll see the jovial fellow in the bathrobe and talk more about mental health. It’ll be a good day no matter what.