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Thursday, February 18, 2016

Mental Illness Rears Its Beautiful Mind and Goes Wide

In November, the Mayor of New York Bill de Blasio and his wife, First Lady Chirlane McCray, launched ThriveNYC, a mental-health initiative, aimed at early detection, prevention and treatment of those suffering from mental illness.

More recently, the Duchess of Cambridge began editing a special HuffPost UK section on mental health and has received contributions from Michelle Obama, First Lady of the U.S., and Olympian Ian Thorpe, among others.

This weekend, Touched With Fire, a film about two bipolar patients who meet in a psych ward, will expand nationally, or, in the jargon of Hollywood, "go wide."

For the most part, the film has received positive reviews, including from the New York Times' Stephen Holden, whose paper this past Sunday ran a front-page story on the deplorable treatment of a man, Alan Pean, who was shot by gun-wielding security guards at a Houston hospital, where he was seeking help for what the Times referred to as a "possible bipolar disorder."

Fortunately, Pean survived the gunshot wound and is now living in New York City.

The Gray Lady's coverage of mental illness has improved in recent years. Its "Lives Restored" series from a few years ago comes to mind. In that series, the Times profiled a number of people with severe diagnoses who function at a high level.

I cannot claim that the improved media coverage of mental illness in recent years is due to all of my articles going back to my 2005 L.A. Times op-ed, "Shedding Stigma of the 'Psycho' Straitjacket."

But I can tell you that while some men, notably William Styron and Andrew Solomon, have written eloquently about depression over the years, very few have ever written about psychosis. And even fewer have done so from their own first-hand experience.

I may have been the first when I wrote my piece in 2005.

Those who have been reading my pieces since then know that I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in the late 1990s. That diagnosis was later changed to schizoaffective disorder and, in the past decade, to major depression with psychotic features.

Like Mr. Pean, I too had a less than pleasant experience with security guards, in my case at the UCLA psych ward in January 1999, although thankfully I was not shot. Rather, four unarmed security guards flexed their muscles and told me that they had worked with cops, while the nurse informed me that unless I took my meds, I would be forcibly restrained and injected with a syringe.

As readers know from some of my past articles, I have described the nurse as looking like a distaff version of the deceased hotel caretaker in The Shining. To be fair to the nurse, I can also recall the strained compassion on her face, as she peeled back the aluminum foil on some psychotropic medication, possibly a tranquilizer.

I took the pills with water, and that knocked me out for the night.

I say all this because, in spite of horror stories at hospitals and on the street, the climate overall has improved for those, like me, who suffer from severe mental illness.

Many have cited statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health and elsewhere, indicating that 1 in 5 or even 1 in 4 adults in this country have a mental illness.

That is true, although the percentage of people with severe diagnoses is far smaller. For instance, about 1% of adults in this country, or roughly 2 million Americans, have schizophrenia.

Irrespective of the statistics, it behooves all of us to recognize that mental illness pervades the world, and that people should not feel stigmatized or fear losing their jobs or lovers due to their illness.

Because I take care of my wife, Barbara, who has her own health issues, I have yet to see Touched With Fire. It is the joy and honor of my life to take care of Barbara, my angel, whom I met 20 years ago at a UCLA writing class, not a psych ward, as is the case in the film with the two lovers, played by Katie Holmes and Luke Kirby.

Though I have not seen the film, I applaud Paul Dalio, the director, who has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and who, from what I can tell, has done a fine service in helping to de-stigmatize mental illness.

I also applaud Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of the book of the same title, upon which the film was inspired, for her cameo, in which she reportedly urges the protagonist lovers to take their lithium.

Jamison, who has battled bipolar disorder for decades, is absolutely right that people who have a severe mental illness should take their meds.

I can attest, as Jamison apparently does in the film, that taking my meds has not prevented me from bursting with creative ideas. To the contrary, my medication has stabilized me enough that, along with therapy, the love of Barbara, a career as a writer and my own will to survive, I have been able to tame my illness.

But I do not suffer from bipolar disorder. As I have argued in the past, words like "psychotic" and "schizophrenic" have historically frightened people and carried a much more acute stigma than words like "bipolar" and "manic."

And if we want to have an honest discussion about mental illness, we should admit that bipolar disorder has become fashionable, particularly for celebrities and other well-known personalities, who only claim to be bipolar after they have behaved atrociously.

It is doubtful that people like this will ever claim that they suffer from schizophrenia or psychosis.

In addition, I might quibble with the list of artistic geniuses, posted at the end of Touched With Fire, whom the filmmakers and Jamison evidently view as having grappled with bipolar disorder.

Van Gogh, whose painting, "Starry Night," plays a prominent role in the film, may have been bipolar, but many also believe that he had schizophrenia. And Hemingway strikes me as having had bouts of severe depression, not necessarily of the manic variety.

There is no question that there is a connection between psychosis and creativity. As I recall, Andrew Solomon, author of The Noonday Demon and Far From the Tree, among other books, has indicated that the two exist "on a continuum" and that neural activity for the two takes place in the hypothalamus.

Of course, it is important to note that very few true geniuses roam the planet. Most people with mental illness do not have the gifts of Van Gogh, Hemingway or the late mathematician John Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind, who had schizophrenia and who won the Nobel Prize.

Those of us who battle mental illness need to take our meds, to go to therapy and to try to get better through a fierce love.

I feel blessed that I have such a special angel in my wife, Barbara.

Not all people are surrounded with love, as I am. And not all people get well.

Three members of my family have committed suicide, including my grandfather, after whom I was named in Hebrew.

Then again, my grandfather was living at a time when the stigma was particularly brutal.

Over the past decade or so, the climate has improved for people with mental illness, and that is true whether or not a person has a beautiful mind.

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