Kevin Camp

Mental Illness: To Tell or Not to Tell

I've heard a variety of conflicting opinions about sharing my mental illness within a Meeting. In the best case scenario, I am lifted up as a symbol of courage in the face of adversity. In the worst case scenario, I am pitied in a condescending sort of fashion. My perspectives are discounted and the only thing people can view about me is my illness. The same is true often when I speak about my sexual orientation. And generational mindsets matter. I was once in a psychiatric ward with an elderly man who refused to admit the nature or existence of his malady.

Let me paste in an anonymous conversation I had over e-mail earlier this week.

I am afraid that anything I write will upset you and truly I don't want to do that, but it is an upsetting situation, of course. Do you have good medical advice? I do think you have very wide mood swings that cause some of the problem.

While I appreciate the Friend's concern, if this is the bellwether of larger trends,  I have a lot of work to do in my new Meeting home. I am in wait and see mode, which is probably the best thing to do before rising to stand and expressing a desire to get more involved. 

I respond to his reply.

It is interesting that you immediately noted that you were concerned for my mental health. Anyone who gets to know me truly as I am will find it to be a very small part of my life. I have been struck by how wrongly people have taken me, as though many years were only a few. I've written about bipolar disorder to reduce the stigma, not to be treated with condescension or further misunderstood.

If people truly took the time to get to know me (or, for that matter, others), this would have been entirely unnecessary. That's the sad thing. I see a lot of people who are afraid of being vulnerable, when being vulnerable is the only way to reach greater growth. And I guess that's why they want to hang a label around my neck.

My mother has also told me to keep my bipolar disorder a secret. I've proposed a compromise. For people 45 and over, I'll stay silent. But for those younger, I'll talk about my illness openly. Still, there is a need to reduce the stigma of mental illness in houses of worship, to speak to the vast amount of misinformation I mention above in the fragment of conversation I shared. My mother has also told me to keep my bipolar disorder a secret. In my lawyer's parlance, I should have kept my big mouth shut. So I've proposed a compromise. For people 45 and over, I'll stay silent.

But for those younger, I'll talk about my illness openly. Still, there is a need to reduce the stigma of mental illness in houses of worship, to speak to the tremendous amount of incorrect information I mentioned above in the fragment of conversation I shared. Even if we don't talk about it in older adults, it still exists.

I'm not sure why people are afraid of it. Do they fear they might develop it somehow? Do they lack the particulars and fear what they don't understand? Do they envision a schizophrenic at the bus stop talking to himself? It could be all of these and more, but for me it's what I call a life. My best friend growing up had an alcoholic father, and I grew up knowing the particulars, the behaviors. I am no longer uncomfortable in the company of those with alcohol and substance abuse problems.

I recognize many don't have those sorts of life experiences. Many more lived in WASPy families where problems were not dealt with directly, submerged instead with distraction. My father had a background in counseling, and we confronted everything directly. I happen to believe that this is the best possible way of dealing with problems, but others do not. My parents knew the signs of bipolar disorder and did not run from them. And it is their proactive approach that kept me alive.

I am thankful that they sprang into action and were willing to do whatever it took to make me well. I will be forever grateful. A less proactive family might well have contributed to my death and I say that with truthfulness. They intervened directly and I am still here as a result of their hard work.

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