I could be Cheryl Miller

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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…

You see, I am about to graduate in a few months with a degree in hand from The University of the West Indies (UWI), and go looking for a job. The fact that I, as a person with a mental illness, was attending university was unthinkable for many people, including the doctor from St. Ann’s who thought it would be too much for my feeble brain.

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

The threat of employment discrimination is a very real one for anyone known to have a mental illness, whether it is treated or untreated, because of the high levels of stigma and ignorance surrounding the illness. It may take the form of not even hiring the person, or even if the person is hired, subjecting them to social and professional undermining, mental or sexual harassment, or not allowing them the time off needed to go to receive treatment. So, 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

Were I to be employed in the public service today, I feel under the present circumstances, that there just might be a chance that what happened to Cheryl Miller could happen to me, if my diagnosis was known to my superiors. It could take just one vindictive boss or colleague to do this, and I would not have a leg to stand on because of my prior diagnosis.

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 take valium and 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.

6 Comments

  1. Liesl Semper

    April 9, 2012 at 1:20 pm

    In many respects, Trinidad & Tobago is advancing briskly along its development path. The oil pumping, natural gas selling, economy moving and so on. And yet, in many respects we seem to have taken up permanent residence in the Dark Ages. We know what we know, and what we know is, if yuh mad, yuh mad. Punto final, but the truth is that more than one genius/world leader has had mental illness – Ernest Hemingway and Abe Lincoln come to mind. Both had depression and Winston Churchill had bipolar disorder. So whatever it is we think we know might actually be *gasp* wrong.

    Until we get to the point where we can accept and acknowledge that a person is not their ailment; that a diagnosis does not render one debris or discard, we won’t get far, and if we wait to see how other people deal with mental illness, and reintegrate the healed and healthy into society, we go be waiting real long. We like to say we lead the way in beautiful women and talent and all manner of thing. Here’s an idea, how about we lead the way in this: not discriminating against the mentally ill. It’s a thought. We could try. Even if we fail to do it perfectly, we’ll have started along a path to true development.

    • Stormy

      March 30, 2017 at 9:11 pm

      I love to decorate my home for the seasons. I have several bed quilts I use for each season. Also decorate with table runners and plcsemata. I also enjoy using seasonal table runners for a shelf I have at work and am currenty making a wall hanging for Halloween. Thanks for the chance to win fabric.

  2. Marsha S. Haneiph

    April 10, 2012 at 6:14 am

    Thank you so much for sharing your point of view. There are so many things wrong with this whole situation. The way she was removed from the offices, and the heartless debates about her. It’s unimaginable.

  3. ProudJamaican

    April 10, 2012 at 8:04 am

    Dem no ready fi yuh!! And I say that to mean that clearly you are a strong and determined woman who has not let her illness and society’s treatment of her illness prevent from achieving her goals. So no, society is not ready for you, but you my dear are more than ready!
    I’m a disgusted but not surprised that this has happened in Jamaica. We’re such a proud little country but so dark in so many ways, and stigmatization of persons with mental illnesses is but one of the many Dark Age Diseases that ail our young nation. In our hyper-religioness we treat persons with mental illness as “demon-possed” who don’t need real medical attention, but prayer and deliverance. I myself when suffering from depression was told that “depression was spiritual oppression” and all I needed to do was pray. Do you send a person with diabetes to pastor without insulin? No! But for some reason, when it comes to our brains (another, though quite different organ in our bodies) we trust the opinions of those who stand at a pulpit instead of those with a medical degree.
    I hope we as a people can begin to learn from this. I hope this creates dialogue and reduces shame, because until then we will continue to suffer in silence and society will remain sick.

  4. Traci S. Williams

    April 16, 2012 at 3:21 pm

    T&T has so far to go. Thanks for sharing your views!

  5. Pingback: COMING OUT FINALLY AS A GIRL WITH BIPOLAR DISORDER……. | A Newer Life

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