Reflecting on Newtown and Coming Out of the Closet on Mental Illness: It's Time

Written By: Christine Walker

The time has come. Today's the day we shift our perceptions of children, teens and adults who live with a mental health concern. Individuals that have these challenges have done nothing, NOTHING, to bring them on and many would sell their soul to the devil himself in exchange for these burdens. It gives me no pleasure to have these same challenges in my family, but I do. Every day I work toward making the rulemakers--for insurance coverage, for government, for community support--aware of the pain that living with a mental health concern presents. There will be much attention paid to the anniversary of Newtown in the coming days. During the recollection, let's make sure that we strengthen our commitment to preventing this from happening again, anywhere.

A good first step in achieving that goal is to be honest about the tremendous need for comprehensive support for mental health, for individuals of all ages. Let's stop fighting about whether children can even have a mental health concern, or whether or not medication should be given to a child. Can we, for once, admit that for every five people we know, one person lives with a mental health concern? Are we able to agree on the fact that mental health is a cornerstone of overall general health and that the brain is indeed part of the human body?

Do we think that seniors living with Alzheimer's brought it on themselves? Have the children and adults with autism done, or not done, anything that has caused their condition? Are those individuals with depression just faking it?

In the US, it seems that having some illnesses is more accepted than others. It's okay to have cancer, but not bipolar disorder. It's just fine to have diabetes, but not an eating disorder. It's cool to take Viagra, but God forbid Prozac.


"Coming out" used to apply to LGBT individuals who lived in 'the closet' for fear of how they would be treated by the outside world, or even their own families. Today, we have seen 16 states recognize marriage equality, cities elect openly gay mayors, professional athletes proudly introduce their partners to the public, television shows portraying gay families win Emmys, the repeal of Don't Ask, Don't Tell in the military, the presence of LGBT clubs in schools, and the United States Supreme Court states that a widow is entitled to have the estate of her late partner considered by the same tax law as her heterosexual peers. Today, it's no longer the big deal it was a generation ago to be openly gay. Check that one off.

When Betty Ford went public with her bout with breast cancer and subsequent mastectomy, for the first time it became acceptable to talk about breast cancer. Or even say 'breast' in a conversation. Then Happy Rockefeller came forward with her own breast cancer and acceptance started to grow. Through decades of advocacy, attitudes toward breast cancer shifted from one veiled in secrecy to pink ribbons and 'Survivor' t-shirts. Neighbors who once avoided a cancer patient in the grocery store now organized weeks worth of dinners from members of the block. Insurance companies that had long agreed to pay for a mastectomy instead of a mammogram changed their policies. Supportive activities for families living with cancer range from free housecleaning and youth summer camp, to being assigned a 'Journey Coordinator' to shepherd one through treatment. October, once only affiliated with Halloween, is now noted for being Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Funding for cancer research is in the billions. Early detection campaigns, pharmaceutical investments and grassroots lobbying efforts have culminated in breast cancer's acceptance, treatment and perception. Check that one off, too.

But to open about one's mental illness? Whoa, not so fast!

Today, too much stigma still surrounds brain disorder for most individuals to 'come out' to others. Public perception is still mired in thoughts of the dangerous psycho who wields weapons, or the delusional homeless person roaming the streets. We've all seen costumes that make fun of those with a mental health concern. Note the photo of a man wearing a white straight jacket and making a 'crazy face', sticking out his tongue, the 'escaped asylum patient' and the ever-present 'House of Horrors', complete with psycho rooms and screaming. We still live in a 'Cuckoo's Nest' nation. And so we sufferers retreat back into our homes, keeping our challenge from the world outside our four walls, all the while marveling at the hugs, casseroles and yard signs of support that our neighbors fighting acceptable diseases receive in droves. So while voters believe they can support a candidate who is a gay cancer survivor, a candidate living with depression is out of the question.

There is something that every person can do, today, to help normalize mental health and reject the false pretense that mental health is in any way different from health below the neck: Embrace the facts.

Science tells a very different story than it did even a decade ago. While there are blood tests and MRIs to accurately diagnose most medical conditions, mental health is a long way off. However, we do know that certain parts of the brain are responsible for certain tasks, behavior and emotions, and that when a part of the brain (and the chemical and synapse activity within it) is compromised, neurons don't do what they should (or do what they shouldn't). A person with schizophrenia can no more control what goes on in their brain than someone with cerebral palsy can control what their muscles can or can't do. Really? Yes.

As a mother, consumer, advocate, citizen and just plain decent person, I ask you to please reframe your understanding of mental health. Consider it, instead, whole wellness rather than separate from physical health. Whether you know it or not, a co-worker of yours, neighbor, church-goer, soccer team parent, student council president, mailman, town councilwoman in your life lives with a mental health concern. And they are just like you. They would love nothing more than to have you know who they are, but are scared they will lose your friendship, support and social invitation.

In this season of giving, please consider giving the gift that truly keeps on giving--acceptance, understanding and inclusion of those in your own circle who would love to not have the mental illness they do. Staying silent about it only compounds their pain. You might be surprised at how far an empathetic smile, gentle touch or offer can go. Wouldn't you welcome that in your own life?

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