I shared a link on Twitter and Facebook yesterday to this story on The Huffington Post regarding comments made by Fox News Radio host Tom Sullivan regarding mental illness. Sullivan is discussing the results of a Social Security Administration report that says that the largest diagnostic group for disabled beneficiaries are for those people with mental health issues. Sullivan, on his radio show, trots out a similar line of complaint that Senator Rand Paul did regarding the same report (you can see my thoughts on the Senator here). When a caller tries explaining the reality of mental health issues to Sullivan he’s rude and dismissive towards her:
“I’m very skeptical. And I’ve got to tell you, if you haven’t been told, I will tell you. I think bipolar is like the latest fad. Everybody and their brother is getting diagnosed with bipolar. And last time I checked, we all have good days and we all have bad. And I don’t consider that an illness. And I don’t consider it a disability.”
The caller displayed a patience with Sullivan that I don’t think I could have mustered. I get angry just listening to the clips. Stigma takes a variety of forms, and Tom Sullivan is certainly guilty of perpetuating one of the most pernicious varieties: calling people fakers and trying to shame them for it.
It’s kicking someone when they’re down. It’s a stinging reminder that as you battle your mental health issues you also have to battle with elements in society to even be taken seriously. I’ve been told that I use my depression and anxiety as a crutch. You can tell when people don’t take what you say seriously, when they’re suspicious that you’re somehow trying to pull the wool over their eyes. They have no idea what they’re talking about, but they scoff at your experience.
Sullivan talks about people having bad days, that we all have them, and he’ll get no disagreement from me. The human experience is full of tragedy, sadness and pain enough for people. Imagine the pain of losing a closing friend who dies unexpectedly. You feel empty, lost, you have a lack of motivation, you cry unexpectedly and dwell on what-might-have-been scenarios. Now imagine going through all of those things but your friend is alive and well- you feel empty, unmotivated, etc. for seemingly no reason. That’s what depression is like, and what makes it so hard is that you can’t pinpoint a cause. That’s why major depressive disorder or bipolar or a serious anxiety disorder is different from having a bad day or two. It’s a devastating and extended period of low mood that inhibits your ability to function normally. And if you cannot function normally, it’s typically grounds to qualify for a disability until you’re better or able to function normally again.
After my suicide attempt I was out of work for a few weeks and then as I recovered and got back to a point where I could function normally again at work, I came back, first on a reduced schedule, and eventually full time. That’s the system working. If people like Rand Paul and Tom Sullivan were actually concerned about the amount of time people spend on disability and lost economic productivity they wouldn’t be dismissive of the nature of the disability, they’d be taking it very seriously. They would look at the SSA numbers and say “Why aren’t we putting more resources into helping people with mental health issues get better? Let’s find ways to help them function so that they can return to the workplace.” But they aren’t interested in economic productivity or people’s well-being, they’re concerned with politics, votes and getting people riled up, and people with mental health issues are a convenient target.
That kind of political posturing is not only dirty and hypocritical, it’s potentially lethal. No, I’m not trying to be hyperbolic. The politics of shaming people can have very real consequences. Imagine you’re suffering from depression, self-harming and you have suicidal thoughts.
You think the only way to stop the pain is to swallow pills, or tie a rope around your neck or put a gun in your mouth. Maybe you want to reach out to a friend or a family member. Maybe if you can tell them how you’re feeling you won’t need to kill yourself. Maybe that’s all you need to take one small step back from the cliff edge. To just say “Something is wrong and I need help.” But before you can say anything your friend mentions they heard something on Fox News radio about these people with fake mental health issues gaming the Social Security system. That they’re frauds and phonies. Your friend says “We all have bad days. Get over it.”
And so you stay silent. You don’t ask them for help. They won’t understand. They won’t get it, and you’re all alone.
Rand Paul, Tom Sullivan and others who peddle in this kind of politics ought to be the ones who are ashamed. If you’re feeling depressed, or anxious, or think you need help, it’s OK to talk to a friend. It’s OK to take some time off of work. It’s OK to try and get better. There are people who love you and want to help and will take you seriously. I’ve been there and I know just saying “I need help” is one of the hardest things in the world to do, and it takes a tremendous amount of strength and if you can do that, you have nothing to feel bad about.