The Other Closet: Mental Illness
I’ve been in the closet for too long. I’m ready to come out. Not the gay closet. I’m talking about the other closet, the closet of mental illness.
So here it goes...I am a person with mental illness! There. I said it. I feel better already.
I’ve come out to friends before. The result? I’ll put it this way: it was no pride celebration. Some stopped talking to me completely. Others would only write me once a year, a simple “hope you are well.” If I had been diagnosed with leukemia, I would have at least had balloons and get well cards.
My coming out party involved being tackled by cops, strapped to a table, and locked in a windowless room for the holidays. I slept in a homeless shelter, under a bridge, outside a train station. I was treated like a criminal, even though I did no crime. I was treated as though I had done something morally wrong, even though I had an illness I couldn’t help. Others couldn’t “see” what I was going through, so they assumed I was making it all up.
I am college educated. I taught high school. I believe in nonviolence. I am pro-gun control. Mental illness does not discriminate. Fortunately, some loving family members were willing to stand by me as I steadily recovered. People recover and an essential part of this recovery is support.
Some in the LGBTQ community are at risk for suicide, and having mental illness can increase that risk. For some, support is the only lifeline.
We’re afraid of mental illness. What we fear about mental illness is usually wrong. The American Psychiatric Association reported in 2016 that, “Mass shootings by people with serious mental illness represent less than 1% of all yearly gun-related homicides....The overall contribution of people with serious mental illness to violent crimes is only about 3%....Perpetrators of mass shootings are unlikely to have a history of involuntary psychiatric hospitalization.”
Some of my closest friends live with mental illness. They are some of the kindest, most gentle people I have ever known. One of my friends was a talented songwriter. He looked fine from the outside; I knew he struggled with bipolar disorder, but I didn’t know the depth of his struggles. One night, he texted me: “U wanna hang out?” I was spending time with a family member and wrote back: “Busy tonight. Tomorrow?” The next morning, his body was found on the railroad tracks.
I wanted to go back in time. I could have saved him, I thought. How could this happen?
Then it happened to me. I became the guy waiting for a train. A man at a nearby tavern noticed me sitting alone by the tracks. Cops showed up. They drove me to the hospital. One of the cops told me: “You’re lucky, kid. There’s more for you to do here. Don’t give up.”
He was right. I am lucky.
The stigma is real. The more we talk about mental illness, the less power stigma has. The more we come out of the closet of mental illness and tell our stories, the more people know the truth. The truth is, in the words of FDR, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself….” ▼
James Adams Smith works as an English tutor at Delaware Technical & Community College and is studying to become an occupational therapist.