I believe that someday mental illness will be seen to be no different than diabetes or asthma. I believe we’re on the way there, in that as a society we more and more often say that’s what we know to be true…but what people feel on a gut level is still very different. I am bipolar. It does not define who I am, but it has at times inevitably affected my life. I can find myself trying desperately to maintain normality, get through everyday activities—and keep it all a secret. Appointments to see my psychiatrist are difficult. I know if I had a melanoma, my employers would rally around me and time off would be no problem. Instead I try to see what day I think I can sneak out a little early for lunch. My employers are not heartless. They are a wonderful, generous group of physicians who hired me right out of graduate school and taught me everything I know. I think their fear would be that I would at some point not be fit to take care of patients.
I think we still think of the “mentally ill” as only the man yelling to himself in the homeless shelter or the woman with a knife on an episode of “Cops”. Depression is acceptable now, but bipolar disorder and schizophrenia still make us very uncomfortable. This, I do believe, will change. Perhaps as high as 4-5% of the population have bipolar disorders and 0.5-1% have schizophrenia. Meds are getting more and more effective. We are sitting next to you, America, although you didn’t realize it while we’ve been sneaking out to appointments. We’re you’re co-workers, your friends. I’m your co-worker, your friend. I’ve been homeless, I’ve been hospitalized. I also have a master’s degree, I’m well read, I love my job as a physician assistant. I am not my illness—and that is all it is, an illness just like any other.
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