By this time next year, Tom will finally have his Ph.D. completed.
A 40-year old Spokane academic, Tom is smart, healthy and successful. But three years ago, he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder – a condition characterized by alternating periods of mania and severe depression.
Tom works part-time for a large, conservative company. While he is well-liked by his bosses and peers, he struggles with overlapping conditions that are part of bipolar disorder, such as attention deficit disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder and problems with working memory (which affects simple tasks like sorting, labeling and remembering what goes where).
His bosses have approached him about his problems at work, but Tom is afraid that if he reveals he has a mental illness, he’ll be labeled crazy, suffer some quiet discrimination or even lose his job.
Tom isn’t alone in coping with such stigma. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 26.2 million Americans, ages 18 and older, struggle with a diagnosable “mental disorder.”
This includes such conditions as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia.
Unlike Tom, Abe Ferris and Dorothy Nechanicky have chosen to speak out about their illness. Both Spokane-area residents have bipolar disorder and have devoted a large part of their lives to helping others, as well as reducing the stigma that is so often associated with mental illness. (Each also has an identical twin who is bipolar.)
Ferris, retired from street maintenance work with the city of Spokane, is president of the Spokane chapter of the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance. Nechanicky, a retired commodity and margin expert, is the vice president and acting secretary.
The organization’s mission is to provide “hope, help, and support to improve the lives of people living with depression or bipolar disorder.” It focuses on services that are peer-based and recovery-oriented.
Ferris’ wake-up call came in his early twenties when, driving more than 100 mph, he crashed into another car. During his six-month recovery, doctors prescribed lithium.
“It totally changed my life,” he says.
He documented his journey in a self-published book titled “Manic or Not, Here I Come – My Life With Bipolar Disorder” in 2008.
Ferris has experienced stigma firsthand.
“After I went back to work, and my peers knew about my illness, people would sarcastically ask, ‘Did you take your meds today, Abe?’ or they would call me derogatory names,” he says.
He also believes the media plays a huge role in perpetuating stigma. When criminally committed Eastern State Hospital patient Phillip Paul escaped during a field trip to the Spokane County Interstate Fair last summer, the media was saturated with the story for weeks.
“These are the only stories you hear about,” says Ferris. “You don’t hear about individuals who are schizophrenic or dealing with some other mental illness who are leading relatively normal lives.”
Nechanicky has had her own trials, including a number of hospitalizations during her bipolar journey. She ultimately found the right combination of medications to get her life on track.
Unfortunately, her twin sister did not fare as well, ultimately committing suicide on their birthday.
“Mental illness happens when otherwise capable people have trouble with their brain working properly,” Nechanicky says. “Stigma arises out of a lack of understanding of this.”
She experienced that when, during the tough early years of her diagnosis, her husband’s co-workers and bosses urged him to leave her. Luckily, he was devoted and became instrumental in her recovery, she says.
Ron Anderson, president of the Spokane chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, came to the organization seeking support and education after a close family member was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
Founded in 1979, NAMI is a grassroots, nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people who have been affected by mental illness. Its goal is to help people live better lives through education, support and advocacy.
Anderson has worked with NAMI for more than a decade and, as a retired peer counselor, has acted as president for nearly two years. He understands that the stigma associated with mental illness is multifaceted.
“The first thing I think of is how it disrupted family harmony,” he says of his own situation. “There were different degrees of understanding and acceptance among different family members. This led to severely strained relationships and some permanent changes in the family dynamics.”
It’s different from other severe types of illness, he adds: “In my experience, cancer is likely to bring a family together, whereas severe mental illness is likely to tear it apart.”
Anderson says that the treatment of mental illness also was once very stigmatized, but that’s finally beginning to show signs of change.
“In 1998, my relative’s top-of-the-line health insurance covered only 50 percent of psychiatry bills, while other ‘normal’ medical bills were paid at 100 percent,” he says. “This was professionally sanctioned discrimination based on stigma.
“Now, 12 years later, (Congress and the) Washington state Legislature have passed mental health parity laws requiring coverage of mental illness equal to other illness. Full implementation has yet to occur, but is due this year.”
The new federal Mental Health Parity Act includes a number of advances. Among them, insurance plans can’t establish different deductibles and co-payments, or limit frequency of treatment and days of coverage, for mental health care as compared to treatment for physical ailments.
However, one of the loopholes, according to the American Psychological Association Practice Organization, is that insurance companies that currently do not provide mental health benefits are not required to do so now.
Anderson, Ferris and Nechaniky all say that the stigma surrounding mental illness can be greatly reduced through education, compassion and understanding.
Ferris urges people to get support from organizations like DBSA and NAMI, where they will learn about mental illnesses and how they affect both the individual and the family.
He cautions against stances like “tough love” when dealing with mental illness.
“It doesn’t work. It only makes matters worse,” he says.
“For someone with normal coping skills, tough love might be appropriate. But not for someone with a mental illness,” Anderson agrees.
He adds that recovering from mental illness isn’t as simple as making a choice: “You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to stand up and walk.”
“Stop looking at it as a character flaw and more as an illness,” urges Nechanicky.
What advice does she give to individuals like Tom, who are afraid to talk to other people about their condition?
“You’ve got to tell them,” she says. “They need to know so that they can understand.”