When I wrote my article about my ambivalence toward going public about my mental illness, last year, I never thought that I would have to write something else about the issue, using a pseudonym again. I thought that the next article I wrote would have my byline standing proud. And then the bacchanal about Cheryl Miller happened.
Even though the reports indicate that she has no prior illness, she was involuntarily committed to mental hospital, at the behest of her employers at the Ministry of Gender, Youth and Child Development. It took legal action for her to be released to the care of her family, and the full facts of what happened are yet to come out.
I knew I had something to say, but seeing the public rhetoric and reaction about mental illness made me decide to stay in my shell a bit longer. As this incident happened in the workplace, it hit home for me on so many levels, it isn’t funny.
The fact that I, as a person with a mental illness, was attending university was unthinkable for many people…
And yet, part of the discourse I heard surrounding this incident was that if she was mad, she would not be attending UWI. In that case, the people who I do know, who have had mental illness and graduated from this university, simply do not exist (and I know a few). However, it is not that they do not exist, but that in order to get a job and survive professionally (and personally), they have to keep their status hidden from bosses, colleagues, acquaintances, and the public, in general.
…it is with this backdrop that I will go with diploma in hand seeking employment, and concerned about these issues
What kicked me in the gut with Cheryl Miller’s case is that I put myself in her shoes. The thing is, before this, I would have been more likely to seek employment in the public service, because I felt that they would be a bit more likely to adhere to labour relations and mental health practices than the private sector – even in this situation. Now, I am not so sure.
It could take just one vindictive boss or colleague
Whether or not I am exhibiting any symptoms of being out of control would be irrelevant because I am “mad” anyway, and I will always be so. It puts me in a double jeopardy situation too, because I would be not feel free to disclose that I might need time off, once every couple of months, to attend treatment, and I would risk side-eyes from my boss for my absences.
What is even more disheartening to me, though, is the public rhetoric that surrounds persons with mental illness. People generally perceive mental illness as being permanent and untreatable. They think that persons with mental illness will never be well-adjusted members of society, who can make meaningful contributions. The idea that people with mental illness can live well-adjusted lives is a bit revolutionary, even in the United States, where persons still face stigma in their personal and professional lives.
I saw one comment on a newspaper’s message board, which implied that Cheryl Miller’s life is now ruined, due to the public coverage of the incident, and she will never get a job again. And I begin to wonder if being marked as someone with a mental illness, especially if they have had to seek treatment at St. Ann’s Hospital, is akin to having been a convicted felon with no second chances. Even my family members and people who I thought were my friends wrote me off as never being able to amount to anything, after I left the hospital.
It makes me disgusted and sad that there are such low expectations for persons with mental illness from the society we live in, but it has not deterred me from pursuing my goals. What made the difference for me in those early, dark days, when I thought my life was over, was the love and support of my Mom and a friend who stood by me. More friends and allies came as the years went by, including a psychiatrist who I think wants to see me graduate more than I do!
Now a decade later, I stand poised to fly and achieve with diploma in hand. I am equipped for life, and employment; but after seeing this incident play out, I wonder…is society is ready for me?
Photo by Christian Hume.