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Conversations To Help Break the Silence: 3 Things About Mental Illness I Wish I Had Learned Earlier

Welcome and let me introduce myself. I’m 1 of 100+ Boca Brave women. I’m caregiver and advocate for a son with a schizoaffective disorder. His rocky road toward “being in recovery” inspires me to learn, speak out and act up about the challenges people with brain diseases face in America.

One in four adults — nearly 62 million Americans — go through a mental illness in any given year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The majority — 60% — don’t get help. Mental illness almost always has nothing to do with character, integrity, morality, or any other issue. Most often mental illness has to do with an organ’s inability to regulate certain chemicals, neurotransmitters, or hormones.[1]

Boca Raton’s Promise, the organization dedicated to making mental illness awareness and treatment actionable in my hometown, is such a natural fit, and blogging is my way to help start the conversations.

You can expect true stories of how mental illness affects your neighbors and our community. You will learn how to recognize the symptoms, understand the diagnoses, understand the treatment sources (or lack of) and how local government, law enforcement, health professionals, educators, school students and the public at large address this illness in our community.

I hope to get you talking. I’ll tell you how to get help.

Here are the 3 things about mental illness I wish I had learned earlier:

  1. Stigma

  2. Stigma

  3. Stigma

Stigma is a mark of disgrace that sets a person apart. When a person is labeled by their illness they are seen as part of a stereotyped group. Negative attitudes create prejudice which leads to negative actions and discrimination.

I grew up in the 50’s and 60’s in a two bedroom apartment with mom, dad, brother and an uncle with a mental illness. His bedroom was a fold-up cot in the living room. Mom and dad did not talk to me about his illness. I suppose because the stigma overwhelmed them. His odd behaviors embarrassed and, sometimes, scared me. My way to deal was to make him invisible, avoid him– my form of discrimination. He was my mom’s beloved brother and I should have known better.

I pushed him so far out of sight that I forgot he lived with us when talking about my childhood decades later.

Fifty years later, the stigma is still going strong.

See for yourself. Search for Halloween costumes or house decorations on the web. “Halloween Insane Asylum/Hospital” ideas depict madmen hanging from windows of institutional buildings. It’s enough to scare the pants off you.

Negative attitudes create prejudice which leads to negative actions and discrimination.

When my son had his first psychotic break at 19, high school and college friends dropped him. Years of open-minded health classes at a progressive private school did not teach that mental illness is a disease of the brain and like any illness requires empathy, not ostracism.

When his best friend’s parent—a PhD in psychology—with whom I was close, explained that the boys “just don’t know what to say to him,” I realized how little we had come in mental health awareness.

When my son internalizes the stigma, my heart breaks.

Self-discrimination takes the form of negative voices. “You’re a loser, you’re gay,” they say. To avoid being discriminated against, he tries to avoid being labeled as “mentally ill” by denying or hiding his problems, sometimes refusing to seek out care and medication.

He tells me has grown to like the voices. I suppose they are getting kinder. I wonder whether it is the Stockholm Syndrome (when one expresses empathy and sympathy for one’s captor), or a good thing as The Hearing Voices Movement advocates. This Movement challenges that to hear voices is not necessarily a characteristic of mental illness. It regards hearing voices as a meaningful and understandable, although unusual, human variation. It rejects the stigma of hearing voices. [2]

You can help de-stigmatize mental illness and further awareness if you:

  1. Listen to Learn

  2. Empathize

  3. Start a conversation

  4. Take an action

Boca Brave will give you the conversational tools to break the stigma of brain disease in our community.

So start talking girlfriends!


[2] Wikipedia and a TED talk

If you are in CRISIS and need help CALL: 2-1-1 or 1 (800) 273-TALK

Andrea is 1 of 100+ Boca Brave women. She’s is  an advocate and speaks out about the challenges people with brain diseases face in America.

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Andrea Gurvitz

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