With coffee in hand one morning in January, I opened an email and what tumbled out was a provocative and powerful piece that has stayed with me ever since. In the dark and uncertain days after the Tucson, Arizona, shootings, seasoned journalist Andrea Ball of the Austin-American Statesman gathered the courage to confront the inaccurate and sometimes sensationalized coverage of the tragic shootings. Demonstrating a great confidence in her readers she wrote, "Well, I have bipolar disorder, and I'm not coming to kill you. I promise."
These words, hanging unspoken for so long, were out on the page for the first time to her readers and colleagues. Andrea chose to push through any fear or questions that she may have had to share her private struggle with mental illness with her readers like me.
The response to Andrea's column was overwhelmingly positive. She received hundreds of emails and phone calls from readers offering support, encouragement and in many cases, acknowledgement of their own battles with mental illness. Then, there were the inspiring messages from those who were strengthened by Andrea's courage and found the ability to seek help for their own mental illness for the first time.
History has taught us that when women, especially, commit their voices to positive change, the impossible becomes probable.
During the past decade in the United States, women's health care has realized monumental gains in scores of areas, including the once stigmatized condition of breast cancer. Just a quarter of a century ago, breast cancer was barely whispered and discussed only behind closed doors, and yet, today people march in rallies to support research for effective treatments and to honor those living with the illness or in recovery. However, stigma against mental illnesses persists despite these diseases causing a greater disability burden to society than all cancers combined.
Despite the growing scientific knowledge of the many different factors contributing to mental illnesses like Andrea's bipolar disorder, they remain misunderstood by the public.
As a society, we believe that the sensationalized depictions of mental illnesses in the movies and on the news are true. These stereotypes, especially those that claim people with mental illnesses are more likely to be violent, couldn't be more wrong--ethically and factually. The reality is that the face of mental illness is that of an award-winning journalist who has bipolar disorder, or a businessman going to work every day despite his depression, or a student studying for an exam and trying to manage her panic attacks. They are your friends, family members, neighbors, and colleagues, who write, work, study, and also struggle with a serious health problem.
Yet, because of stigma, many of the one in four Americans living with mental illness this year will suffer alone and in silence, often avoiding effective medical care out of fear they will be labeled or treated differently by their friends, co-workers, and community members. As we allow stigma to persist, we inhibit opportunities for people to recover from their illness and live meaningful lives in their communities. We also open the door for one of the most devastating results of untreated mental illness--suicide, costing almost as many lives each year as all homicides and wars combined.
Today is International Women's Day, and it provides an opportunity for women to explore what we can do to bring this issue out of the shadows. It may include sharing your own experience with mental illness with a close friend, asking your primary care physician what she/he is doing to detect and treat mental illnesses in their practice, or perhaps reaching out to your faith community to explore ways to help raise mental health awareness locally.
Major progress already has been made by women like former U.S. First Lady Rosalynn Carter, who has spent 40 years of her public life working on mental health policy and stigma reduction, from her time as First Lady of Georgia, to the White House, and through her work with the Carter Center's Mental Health Program. More recently, actress Glenn Close and her sister Jessie, who has bipolar disorder, have launched a national campaign "Bring Change 2 Mind" that works to better inform the general public about mental health issues.
To keep the momentum against stigma moving forward, we need women in the U.S. and around the world to rise up with Mrs. Carter, Ms. Close, and Andrea Ball to say, "No more will we discriminate against our mothers and daughters living with mental illness!" Each one of us has the opportunity to change inaccuracies and shatter stereotypes around mental illnesses. Our daughters and granddaughters can live in a world where they do not fear seeking help for any health condition and are able to get the support and resources they need to fulfill their greatest potential.
For more information on The Carter Center, please visit www.cartercenter.org.