On the Concept of “Mental Illness,” the Harms of Psychiatric Labeling, and the Most Unrecognized, Oppressed Minority Group in America

therapists and clinical directors there always attribute this to the fact that either 1) I didn’t try hard enough, more commonly known as the “you haven’t fully surrendered” line (and if anybody ever tries to say that to me again, I will literally smack them in the face) or 2) (While they won’t say this) My brain isn’t capable of being fixed. Never once have I heard a treatment center consider the fact that maybe Western psychiatry’s (and therefore American culture’s) failure to reconceptualize “mental illness” maybe plays a role in my failure to achieve long-term health, that maybe the whole system of psychological diagnosis and labeling they subscribe to is fu—up in the first place.

And when I think about it, despite all these therapists’ purported belief in the biomedical model, I really don’t think they even believe it, at the subconscious level – probably due largely to the individualistic, pick-youserlf-up-from-your-bootstraps American mores we’ve all raised with and steeped in. What their actions and words have – if you read between the lines – said to me, over and over again – is the problem is me, my weak character, my poor work ethic, etc., not some inherent biological mutation I have no control over. You readers may find this hard to believe. But if you’re ever unfortunate enough to have to attend one of these centers, you’ll see what I mean.

How does all the stigma and entrenched, biomedical mindsets play out in real life? While I can go on at length about the various forms of oppression the “mentally ill” in America face. But I’ll try to save most of that for another article. For now, I’ll just briefly state that the aformentioned researchers have amply demonstrated the mentally ill remain one of the most disadvantaged and oppressed minorities in this nation. Decades of research has shown they experience extreme prejudice from employers, landlords, government institutions, medical professionals and counseling professionals themselves. While most chronically, mentally ill individuals wish to work to some degree, only 15 percent are able to obtain employment.  A comprehensive review of more than 1,200 American With Disabilities Act cases filed by the mentally ill and which made it to federal appellate court showed that employers won 95.7 percent of the time (The analysis, by University of Miami law professor Susan Stefan, was published in the Alabama Law Review in 2000).The mentally ill also experience greater economic hardship, social isolation and social restrictions than almost any other minority group. While other forms of identity-based inequality (such as being “black” or “gay”) have made huge gains over the past 50 years, the “mentally ill” have reaped comparable rights. Rarely is prejudice toward us even acknowledged when we are made fun of, or made the scapegoat for some social ill. The prejudice toward the mentally ill is so entrenched and subconscious that even the most open-minded and tolerant of those in power, or those with celebrity, don’t even realize they’re buying into this form of prejudice when they’re doing it.

And what does all the above look like, when translated to the individual level? It looks like me. Ten years ago, I was a high-functioning journalist grappling with a variety of mental health issues, including an eating disorder. I entered a residential treatment program in a proactive attempt to stop things before the spiraled out of control. I entered the system – a system I was led to believe was my only route to “recovery” – a system that, on the contrary, turned out to be the beginning of my end.

Thus ensued 10 years of me cycling in and out of treatment centers, as I was brainwashed about the names and sources of my “disorders” and the rigidly-defined solution for solving them.

A little more than a year ago, I left my last treatment center – where, despite fully restoring my weight and mental stability after about three months, I was forced to stay an additional eight, as the center’s practitioners could never seem to agree I was “ready” to return to reality. Finally, in July 2013, I discharged myself “against medical advice” because I saw the debasing treatment the center subjected me to, on a daily basis, was only reversing the gains I had made, and setting me up for failure upon return home.

When I returned to the Bay area I set about trying to do the only thing I knew would really give me a chance at maintaining my restored weight and mental stability: finding a fulfilling job that not only related to my passions and provided me a sense of purpose in this world again, but that also allowed me to finally regain financial stability and self-sufficiency. But I had a ten-year job gap, was 40 years old, and no prospective employer would give me the time of day. Particularly since, if any of them even lingered over my resume, and then Googled my name, all that showed up were news articles – accompanied by emaciated photos of me – related to a landmark lawsuit I won bringing mental health parity to California health insurance. News articles which pretty much shouted out, from the glare of the computer screen, my status as one of those CRAZY ANOREXICS, one of the most stigmatized mental illnesses in the U.S.

In November, by pure luck – i.e., a sister’s connections – I obtained an excellent temp job in communications at Stanford University. Finally, I was high-functioning again, exulting in my return to the workforce, and while I can’t say I was in “full recovery” (I’m not sure “recovery,” in traditional psychiatry’s sense of the word, is achievable for me – but that’s a complex topic for another article), my OCD and eating disorder behaviors were mild enough to allow me to finally start living a relatively “normal,” fulfilling life.

I delved into the job – which involved, among other things, helping fill in for the department’s media relations director (then on maternity leave) – with enthusiasm and gusto, proved myself worthy of the job’s media-sensitive responsibilities, and worked there for four, very productive months. My supervisors praised the high quality and thoroughness of my work, and gave me increasingly more responsibility.

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4 comments

  1. Diane R. Anderson says:

    Good morning Jeanene,
    I am eager to read your entire article and I copied it into Words so I can have it with me at all times even when there is no internet access for me here.
    I did read the first page quickly and the last paragraph… My heart felt and my eyes are crying for the pain that you are going through. You are a wonderful writer and you have a lot to offer that the world sees and recognizes it or not. It takes more courage to fight and that is what you are doing right now. You have started a fight for you and to help others by making this disease more visible. Scientists can go to the moon but can’t figure out the intricacy of the human brain to cure mental illness. I can’t wait to dig further with you in understanding the dimension, the fears and the nutritional effects that could make a small difference.
    Always listening,
    Love,
    Diane

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  3. Jeanene, Just because we choose not to call it “mental illness” doesn’t mean we don’t believe the suffering exists. Your friend was using faulty logic. You did not state, “People aren’t really suffering.” What you did state, and I do too, is that we choose not to call this “illness.” We don’t deny the existence of suffering. As I said in my blog post, calling it “illness” actually diminishes our recognition of suffering, boxing us into categories and pre-determined “treatment.”

    As for the discrimination against ED, I see that everywhere. It even exists in the Movement. How many times have I heard, “My bipolar was real. Your eating disorder was a choice.” So a manic person doesn’t “choose” to waste thousands of dollars on a plane ticket to Hollywood, thinking he/she is having a love affair with a movie star due to either “I can’t help it it’s my illness” or “It’s not an illness but I was really suffering.” Either way, calling it “illness” or not, ED gets left between the cracks.

    Yes, ED impacts us physically and is often caused by something amiss in the body. How often have I heard, “After 20 years, I found out the cause was a food allergy.”? Or, “My kid wouldn’t eat, but we found out he had dental problems that made it impossible to chew.” The treatment centers don’t even address these things. They don’t care what the cause is, they only force-feed and monitor every function of the human body as if we are caged animals.

    I suffered from both anorexia and binge eating. The binge eating went ignored in the treatment center and the focus was on forcing food, or even fake food, into me. They assumed the binge eating came from hunger. If only they’d listen to patients and realize that it doesn’t. In fact, I’ve had uneducated doctors and well-meaning friends state that it’s good to binge because it puts weight on a person.

    Say, what? Is no one speaking out on this? I think there are more deaths from binge eating (stomach rupture, car accidents, suicide) than anyone wants to admit. I know that in 1986 and 2012, when I really did want to do myself in, it was because no one presented to me any reasonable solution to binge eating. I was either turned down, blamed repeatedly, or given pat answers by “staff” who really didn’t know what I and other men and women experience who do large-quantity binges.

    Even outpatient treatment is slavery. People with bipolar or OCD might see a therapist once a week, maybe twice, and the psychiatrist once a month, but with ED, you have to see not only a therapist who runs your life, but also a nutritionist, often weekly, and a PCP for the forced weigh-in, plus the psychiatrist. Some must endure the forced weigh-in twice weekly. For many, this means at least three appointments per week, and if you don’t show up for one, you risk sectioning, that plus living with constant threats, “If you don’t gain 1/2 pound by Friday, you’re sectioned!” That’s not a life. It’s hell. It’s treating an adult like kindergarten, basing “care” on distrust and suspicion. I’ve been told, “All ED’s lie.” That, too, isn’t true. We don’t lie any more than anyone else. When i see it in a young ED, it’s usually the result of repeated scaletime bullying.

    • Jeanene Harlick says:

      Julie, I can’t respond in full right now – but I am very much in agreement with so many of your points! I am not sure how people can be so clueless… Like I said on your blog – Western society is pathologizing what are natural human emotions and behaviors which stand outside what they deem “normal” – because they’re uncomfortable with people who choose to live authentic lives; who feel intensely; who are in touch with the true nature of world, being human, the faulty parameters of “success,” etc. I.E. people who are akin more to artists and seers, and choose not to take the easy route by trying to squeeze ourselves into the cookie-cutter living and emotional range that is considered “acceptable” today …. That’s one reason why it’s very informative to look back at the history of “mental illness” – by reading people like Foucault, Goffman, R.D. Laing, etc., and understand how much a construct mental illness labels are… And how society exacerbates what is actually normal human suffering – suffering which could be manageable if it weren’t stigmatized because we express it in unconventional ways…. That’s not to downplay that there is also a lot of struggle arising from past trauma, too, and that that is deserving of help and working-through — but not the stigma, labels, and prejudice which sometimes come with that…

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