Mental Health: The Disability of Mental Illness

Yesterday morning, I was most privileged to co-host a webinar event on the subject of mental illness as a disability.

The event, with our primary host being the staff of the Texas State Independent Living Council, led by the organizer Ashley Fry; and was co-hosted also by Dr. Ricardo Irizarry of the Tropical Texas Behavioral Health Center.

Although I was having a difficult time presenting, as I have a cold that has affected my speech and hearing, I managed to do my part of the event, and was told that the webinar was well received by all in attendance, and we presenters did a most outstanding job.

In order to understand the subject of mental illness as a disability, it behooves one to look at the history of mental illness; and most especially in our American society.

Prior to the late 1700’s mans view of mental illness was rather bleak and most disturbing; persons with mental illness were shunned, ostracized, beaten, tortured, chained up in the most horrible conditions of prisons, etc.

Many were seen as being “demon possessed” or being “possessed by the devil,” and went through a process of exorcism (I have treated individuals and their families whom still believe in this to this date).

But the history of our modern approach to those individuals with mental illness did not begin in our nation; it actually began in France.

A physician by the name of Philippe Pinnel, while serving as the primary physician at a women’s institution for the “insane” in Paris, literally broke the chains of those who were chained up against the walls; and advocated for a more humane treatment of them.

As the first person recorded to advocate for this he became known as the Father of modern psychiatry.

Yet we know that conditions of treatment of those individuals with mental illness in the world were not to change rapidly; the process was slow in development.

It wasn’t until the late 1800’s and the beginning of the 20th century that changes were to occur in the American society, and had its beginnings with non-professional advocates for change.

An individual who greatly influenced our concept of Mental Illness in the United States was Clifford Whittingham Beers.

Mr. Beers was a person with mental illness who described the deplorable conditions in State Institutions, in which he had been an “inmate,” in his book entitled “The Mind That Found Itself.”

Through his advocacy for improvement of the conditions and care for persons with mental illness, he founded the American Mental Hygiene Association, which eventually developed into the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill; which in turned paved the way for development of the National Institute for Mental Illness, etc.

Further advancements in the care and treatment of persons with mental illness occurred in 1946 when our congress passed the National Mental Health Act.

This act led the way for more humane treatment in federal and state institutions for persons with mental illness … developing the National Institute for Mental Illness and other agencies of concern, to include research development for mental illness.

Yet conditions were not to improve until well into the 1980’s, as persons with mental illness still faced stigma and discrimination.

In 1990 the Americans with Disability Act was passed by Congress, which prohibited discrimination against persons with disabilities.

With its many amendments in following years, in 2010 the Equality Act was passed which included mental illness as a disability; if lasting, or predicted to last 12 months or more; which includes depressive disorders, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, trauma disorders, and eating disorders (other disorders are to be found in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM-V).

This was a landmark act for persons with serious, chronic mental illness.

Yes, we have come a long way in the treatment and care for persons with mental illness, yet we have many other contemporary issues of concerns.

One such issue, and one which has always been present, is the stigma attached to persons with mental illness.

One such stigma issue is that the person with mental illness is dangerous. We know from experience and factual data that only 1% of persons with mental illness can become violent, and that usually only occurs with a person with Bipolar Illness during their Manic Phase (all though it may occur with a person with Schizophrenia when acting on hallucinations or delusional thinking); that means that 99% of persons with mental illness do not become violent, and we need to focus on that.

This brings to mind the individual who recently committed mass murder in that small town in Texas, whom the media is labeling as “crazy,” “demented,” etc.

This person did not have a mental illness, he is what is known in reality as being a “Sociopath,” a person whose behavior was targeted against society; and his past behaviors even before he committed the murders have proven that.

Persons with mental illness most often face prejudice and discrimination … the stigma attached to their diseases. Many individuals are quick to apply labels on them … “he’s schizophrenic,” etc., instead of seeing the person first with an illness as should be done with any illness whether it be physical or psychological.

Always be mindful that the person is not their disease.

Overcoming the myths, misconceptions, and faulty assumptions concerning persons with mental illness has taken a very, very long time to overcome or come to grips with.

Through public education, advocacy groups, prevention and treatment efforts; and genuine empathetic understanding of those with mental illness we have made great strides.

It is my hope that all of you will do a part in acknowledging the fact that Mental Illness is a disability, and spread awareness to others and mindful empathy to persons with mental illness; and remember to Stay Healthy My Friends.