mental illness

So there have been a whole lot of visitors to this site this week, as hitting the Top 10 on Blogdex and Daypop three times each, and then getting slashdotted will tend to have that effect. But it left me wondering what message I’d want to get out while I have the attention of a few thousand extra readers.

I wanted to talk about a topic that I’ve alluded to several times over the years here on my site, which is mental illness. Those who are close to me know that I struggled for about 7 years with severe bipolarism and bouts of serious depression. I’ve also lost friends and family members to untreated mental illnesses which cost them their lives, and helped many more people I’m close to deal with the ongoing effort it takes to manage these problems.

I realized that this medium is a terrific one in which to discuss these issues a few years ago, because of the ease with which a reader can be directed to resources appropriate to their situation. This was reinforced recently when I read this MetaFilter thread on suicide. The compassion of (most of) the participants in the conversation, and the usefulness of the resources they linked to, was both moving in an emotional sense and inspiring in a practical sense.

We’ve created something amazing with the weblog medium. A significantly new medium with a global reach that has had the input of women and people of color as peers since its founding, not just in creating content, but in ownership of the tools and platforms that create the medium, is so revolutionary it sounds like some idealistic pipe dream. That it’s not owned or controlled by the major media corporations is even more unlikely. But many of us have fallen into the same patterns of succumbing to the stigmatization of mental illness that we see in older, traditional media formats. I don’t know anyone who hasn’t been touched by it either personally, or through friends and family, and I think our new weblog medium should reflect that.

Though I spent a small amount of time using therapy and medicines to assist in managing my illness, I’ve realized in retrospect that one of the most valuable things I did was running and updating this site. Isolation is a critical element in many people’s experience with mental illness, especially depression, which is why prescriptions for treatment often include pet ownership or volunteering in a community. But if the goal is to find a community in which one identifies, where peers and people of a similar bent can be discovered, then few tools are as effective as a format that ignores geography in favor of proximity of personality.

So, if you get a chance, and it’s appropriate for the type of site that you run, you might want to talk about the experiences you’ve had, or that those who you care about have had. Having someone to identify with can change someone’s life permanently and for the better. It did for me.

There’s dangers of exposing such personal information on the Internet, of course. Anonymity and distance combine to embolden the immature to take shots at people while they’re at their most vulnerable. And the permanence of the Google record leaves many people unwilling to associate such revelations with their identity forever. It’s a balance each of us has to negotiate against what feels comfortable.

The threats don’t just stop at foolishness from misguided individuals. There are regularly alarmist articles that discuss medicines that many find effective as if they’re a bigger danger than the illnesses themselves. (Disclosure: City Pages is owned by Village Voice Media, my employer.) And there has been a concerted effort for years by groups such as the Church of Scientology to discredit and malign psychiatry and various medications for mental illness.

It’s not easy to feel comfortable talking about being mentally ill while people still see this family of illnesses as less real or less treatable than some purely physical illnesses. But the tremendous opportunity for the mentally ill is that they can contribute towards their effort to get well, where many physical illnesses can only be addressed by attempts at prevention before they strike. One thing I mention when speaking to people about mental illness is that, if I have to be sick, I’d at least like to have a sickness I can do something about.

But you don’t have to do it alone. If you want more information on how to get treatment and help for yourself or those you care about, visit the resources at the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Screening for Mental Health, or the National Institute of Mental Health.