Some years ago, after I wrote an op-ed on mental illness in the L.A. Times, I was contacted via email by a woman who told me that her husband had experienced delusions similar to the ones I had discussed in my article. Like me in the late 1990s, her husband believed that the FBI or CIA was monitoring him.
She told me that her husband never listened to her on this matter, that he denied that he was ill and that he refused treatment. What should she do?
I wrote back, advising her to enlist one of her husband's male friends and have him tell her husband that he needed help. The reason I gave this advice is because while mental illness is as likely to afflict men as women, men are less likely to acknowledge it, because they may fear that it evidences weakness of a spiritual, moral, and even physical nature. Some men may go so far as to view mental illness as indicating that a man is not tough enough, or not masculine enough, to handle life.
This fear among men extends to writers. While a number of men, including William Styron and Andrew Solomon, have written outstanding books on depression, very few have ever been willing to write about battling psychosis.
Since that 2005 op-ed in the L.A. Times, I have been writing openly about my battles with hallucinations and delusions. I have met many men who suffer from schizophrenia, most of whom are too frightened to disclose their condition outside of a therapeutic setting or self-help group.
Though my own diagnosis of schizophrenia in the late 1990s was probably incorrect, my delusion that I was being framed for a series of murders sweeping the nation was so severe and my psychosis so acute that I was given a 20 (out of 100) on what is known as a Global Assessment of Function (GAF) scale, a very low score that revealed just how incapacitated I was.
That was 14 years ago. In the years since, I have tamed my psychosis and view it as a mission to write about my past, partly because so many people in my family have struggled with mental illness (three suicides, all men), and partly because so many men in this country and around the world remain in the shadows on this subject.
One can understand why, given the perception fed by sensationalized news coverage about a supposed link between mental illness and violence. No one wants to be viewed as a potential murderer, even though men and women who receive treatment for severe mental illness are no more likely to commit violent crime than those who are not mentally ill. In fact, those being treated for severe mental illness often fear correctly that they could be the victims of violence.
This makes sense, as many with a mental disorder have since childhood been bullied, tyrannized or otherwise mistreated by peers and sometimes by family members. Critics will respond that childhood can be difficult for everyone, and they will say that many people who are not mentally ill have been teased and bullied. That is true. But if you suffer from severe depression at an early age, as I did, you are more likely to view yourself and to be treated as weird, different and a social failure.
Years after my trauma, I have come to realize that being different can be a blessing if you are willing to forge on. I have also found that talking and writing openly about my mental illness can help to shed the stigma for men and women.
I have written many times before about how some of the most sublime characters in history, from Abraham (who heard voices telling him that his people would be as numerous as the stars in the sky if he moved from Ur to the promised land) to Abraham Lincoln (who had two major depressive episodes in his life and often discussed suicide, according to Joshua Wolf Shenk's book, Lincoln's Melancholy), arguably suffered from mental illness.
It is also true of macho men, such as football players like Terry Bradshaw, who has openly discussed his battles with depression and whom I have written about in the past.
I am not suggesting that every man with a mental disorder should be as open as I am, or that every woman should be as open as Elyn Saks, author of The Center Cannot Hold, who wrote a fine op-ed in the New York Times this past Sunday.
Like Saks, who concluded her piece with Freud's dictum about the necessity of work and love, I am fortunate in that I have a spouse who loves me and a fulfilling writing career. I was also fortunate to work with some extraordinarily thoughtful people at L.A. Weekly years ago when I was a proofreader and copy editor, and I continue to blog for a progressive publication, The Huffington Post, that kindly allows me to write about mental illness and other topics.
Not every man or woman will have as tolerant a work environment, or as loving a spouse, as I do.
I don't know whatever happened to that man, whose wife wrote to me years ago. I hope that he was willing to listen to a male friend or any friend. He needed help, as I did in the late 1990s. What I can tell him is that I got better. It took many years, but I subdued my psychosis. And suffering from it didn't make me any less of a man.
For more by Robert David Jaffee, click here.
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