Disability as Invisible Illness – The Last Frontier

Mental Health Awareness Month is the ideal occasion to discuss the ways in which race, sexuality, and socio-economic status intersect in our society

I’ve wanted to write something like this about mental health for a long time – but I kept pushing it to the back of my mind. This past week I saw something online that will not let me remain silent anymore in published print form. This piece is specifically for the Romanian-American community in the United States, and for that reason, ARCHER is the perfect platform.

I have been a vocal advocate about mental health for ten years as a member of NAMI – the National Alliance on Mental Illness. That advocacy has included producing a play that I wrote about mental health, which promoted NAMI in the 2015 Washington DC Black Theatre Festival. The show’s sold-out run concluded with an inspirational post-show talk-back with NAMI representatives and survivors.

NAMI representatives and survivors join the cast and audience of “Finally Quiet In My Head” (DC Black Theatre Festival 2015) for a post-show talk-back discussion about mental health.

Every year when May rolls around, I share some thoughts on social media about why it is important to observe Mental Health Awareness Month. I don’t really get on the soapbox that I want to, because mental health is still such a misunderstood and difficult topic, but I always share that this month matters. I share names of mental illnesses that you may have never heard of, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, bipolar disorder (I and II), borderline personality disorder, depression, anxiety, PTSD, and more. I always say that these illnesses are invisible, so most of the time you will never know that someone is suffering from a mental illness until they have an episode. Then you might see that they are acting “weird,” and most often people (because of so much ignorance) will react like this: “Get it together. Snap out of it. Why don’t you just take a walk, that’s what I do.” If you are familiar with the word “ableism” that kind of response is exactly what it looks like, because mental illness is a disability.

Each May I always share on my Facebook that mental illness kills. A mentally ill person might be having an episode – hallucinating, having grandiose thoughts, etc. – and the police are called. And in many cases the mentally ill person might be killed by police violence. The death of Daniel Prude in 2020 in Rochester, NY tragically comes to mind. A mentally ill person might be engaged in behaviors that lead to self-destruction. The connection between mental illness and substance abuse is strong. We all have seen the Suicide Hotline trending on social media – but why do so many people feel they can advocate against suicide and not realize that it is a result of mental illness?

 The first scene of the play when Morgan wakes up in the St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital, confronted by her doctor and parents.
The first scene of the play when Morgan wakes up in the St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital, confronted by her doctor and parents. 

Throughout history, the mentally ill were the first to be removed from society. In Europe and North America until at least WWII, a woman’s husband could send to her an asylum for “hysteria” which simply means: “being too emotional.” And she would spend the rest of her life and die in that asylum. Since the emergence of humans on the landscape, mental illness has been interpreted in different ways across the world: some societies believing that sufferers possessed magic powers, others believing rather that the mentally ill were bad luck, some thinking that the mentally disabled were possessed by the devil thus needing to be purged of evil spirits, and more. Historical examples of mental illness you will always hear about are the artist Vincent Van Gogh and the author Virginia Woolf. Both of their genius is used to support the now widely accepted argument that mental illness is linked to creativity.

But let me bring this to a topic that should bring humanity’s last frontier to the front of the line. The mentally disabled were the first to be exterminated in the Holocaust as part of the T-4 Nazi Euthanasia Program (1939). What do I mean by that? Patients in mental hospitals in Germany were annihilated first by “mercy killings” at the hands of German doctors. This was before the mass use of the extermination camps (e.g. the gas chambers at Auschwitz), before the Final Solution (1941-1945) that claimed the lives of the communities I hope we all already know about (Jews, Roma, communists, Soviet POWs, gay men, etc.).

Nazi propaganda poster reading “It costs the state 5.5 Reichsmark (i.e. German money at the time) each day for every disabled patient. For the same amount, an entire family can live a whole day.” Source: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum at www.ushmm.org

For our community – Romanian-Americans – we have a window into mental illness that it appears many of us are in denial of: inherited trauma. The crimes of the Holocaust and communism that our grandparents, parents, and many of us personally suffered have lasting neurological and biological effects that are inherited by our children and our children’s children. Why would a community that has had such an “in” so-to-speak to mental health struggles, be so reluctant to take Mental Health Awareness Month seriously?

Covid-19 especially has brought mental health to national attention. People are suffering on a scale never seen before – due to isolation, loss of loved ones, loss of employment, increased daily stress, you name it. This year has been the worst in many of our lifetimes. And returning to the topic of suicide, that is one reason we have lost so many of our young people this year. And in fact that was the motivating factor that brought Las Vegas schools back to open in-person: so many of their high school students had taken their own lives.

The main character Morgen is saved in the hospital by her friendship with Gerard, another patient.
The main character Morgen is saved in the hospital by her friendship with Gerard, another patient.

There is so much more to say, and this is the note I will end on. We are becoming more and more aware of the milder forms of mental health suffering. This is progress and I am so happy to see it. While we normalize conversations about mental health, please let us not lose sight of the fact that at least 1 out of 5 people in the United States suffers from mental disability. And many who suffer from invisible illness are also invisible to society – shut behind closed doors of psychiatric hospitals and the prison system.

Here we are at the last frontier having this urgent discussion. And please can we all endeavor to completely erase the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness, and support our fellow humankind with kindness, humane medical care, patience, understanding, and empathy. 

And instead of telling sufferers to just take a walk? How about we all walk alongside one another on the path towards a better and more just society.

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