Opinion: The mentally ill aren't always who you think they are

By Lindsay Maxfield | Posted - Dec 20th, 2012 @ 8:43pm

SALT LAKE CITY — Another horrific tragedy has cracked wide open the discussion on mental illness. Politicians and lawmakers are calling for a closer look at the intersection of mental illness and violence, the debate on gun control and restrictions for the mentally ill rages with greater fervor, and families of the mentally ill are pleading for help and compassion.

These discussions are timely and well-intentioned, and they just may be the impetus for greater understanding and, perhaps one day, help us find solutions for these devastating social tragedies. But for these talks to be of any benefit, we must have a broader perspective on just who those people are that we call “mentally ill.”


When an event such as a mass shooting is carried out by a person with a serious mental illness, it is only natural that the discussion turn to the mentally ill. In this case, the dialogue has generally been compassionate and sensitive; however, in still too many circles the language remains hostile. It's in these situations that all the negative stereotypes and generalizations used for the severly mentally ill flood the dialogue, usually in the form of loaded, derogatory words: Unbalanced. Dangerous. Deranged. Psychotic. Sick. Evil.

These labels are thrown around quickly and liberally because using labels is easy; labels make us feel safe. They give us the feeling that there is some level of understanding about what happened and why. Labels allow us to stand at a safe distance from these “deranged” people who perpetuate such acts of horror, because when we can say, “The shooter was mentally ill,” we can breathe a sigh of relief that he was just some rare "nut case" and not the kind of person we come in contact with in our everyday lives.

Facts about mental illness in America
  • An estimated 26.2 percent of Americans ages 18 and older — about one in four adults — suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year.
  • The main burden of illness is concentrated in a much smaller proportion — about 6 percent, or 1 in 17 — who suffer from a serious mental illness.
  • Approximately 20.9 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of the U.S. population in a given year, have a mood disorder.
  • ADHD, one of the most common mental disorders in children and adolescents, also affects an estimated 4.1 percent of adults, ages 18-44, in a given year.
  • Major Depressive Disorder is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. for ages 15-44.
  • Many people suffer from more than one mental disorder at a given time: Nearly half (45 percent) of those with any mental disorder meet criteria for 2 or more disorders.

But that’s not really the truth.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, more than a quarter of Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness in a given year. Using the most recent U.S. Census data, this means that more than 80 million people in this country are classified as “mentally ill.”

It doesn’t add up that one in four people in the United States is unbalanced, dangerous, deranged, psychotic, sick and evil, does it? That’s because for the vast majority of the mentally ill, you’d never know they were ill at all. They’re what I like to call the “middle grounders,” those people who have been diagnosed with a mental illness but are doing the best they can to live happy, healthy, normal lives.

There are thousands and thousands of them — likely many millions — and these are the people you meet on the street and in the grocery store. They’re your co-workers and neighbors, family and friends. They are everywhere, and they are the broader face of mental illness because they are not the extremes, the rare cases who make headlines; they are the people who suffer silently, bravely, bearing an unspeakable burden too often alone for fear of being labeled and classified with the violent few — to say nothing of being judged and feared on a myriad of levels.

I know about these middle-grounders because I am one of them. I was diagnosed at age 22 with a “serious mental illness,” a mood disorder I had battled since I was 13. My personal history has been irreparably shaped by that decade of anguish, guilt, shame, confusion, anger, loss, isolation and pain. This only makes more powerful the fact that, after nearly another decade of anguish and struggle, I have been able to find peace, happiness, joy and wellness. I have been able to fulfill those dreams I had previously buried when I was given that label of “mentally ill.” I have reclaimed my self-worth from all that this incurable illness has taken from me, and I am among the proud survivors who wear my scars like a badge of honor — because I truly am proud to be where I am today, mental illness and all.

But what I went through personally doesn’t actually matter; everyone who suffers has different scars and travels a different path. I only share my experience to show that the mentally ill are not who you think they are. Until I started speaking publicly about my illness, those who knew me were shocked to discover the truth — but even more shocking are the harsh, judgmental things that have been said about me and my experience with mental illness. I have been called everything from a fake to a drama queen, accused of giving false hope with a sanitized story, and told I haven’t “really suffered” like other people with mental illnesses — a common criticism even amongst the mentally ill themselves.


This brings to light the point I am trying to drive home: We are all different. No two stories are alike, no two experiences are alike, and because of this there is no way to possibly explain what it’s like to be mentally ill or to love someone with a mental illness.

There are millions and millions of experiences and stories of what it means to be mentally ill, some like mine and others drastically different. Sadly, there will always be extreme cases, but there will be countless other stories of the middle-grounders who fight, day and night, to be counted among the normal and the healthy.

In this time of widespread dialogue, we must be compassionate not only toward those who live in the desperate extremes, but we must never forget the millions of middle-grounders who, together, illustrate what mental illness is really about: people who have a cross to bear who are doing all they can to be loved, appreciated and helped along the way. More importantly, they stand as a powerful reminder that hope and healing are possible and that solutions and happy endings can be found for those who suffer.

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