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The Unacknowledged Prejudice Against People Living With Mental Illness

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There is widespread focus on racial, gender and wage, and LGBTQ+ rights/discrimination. However, in my opinion, little attention is given to the facts, conditions and prejudices faced by people with mental illness because of the policies and practices of federal/state agencies, public/private employers, as well as the population at large

• What is Bipolar disorder?

This is mostly due to the stigma, embarrassment and bias still attached to mental conditions, which severely limit the number of people volunteering to go public, risking even greater labeling and ridicule. With a B.A. in telecommunications, and minors in psychology and writing, I possess the skills to communicate/educate on these issues, and have recently decided to overcome any fears of becoming a public voice, prompted by the true state of nothing to lose.

I have been both an unwilling and willing member of this population for 47 years, first seeing a psychologist in 1970 while attending second grade. This amounts to a greater history in mental health than most professionals practicing in the field today. And from what I’ve seen, my recent treatment has actually proven more difficult than how I was treated in the past.

Compare and Contrast

1993: I was involuntarily committed to a state mental hospital in Michigan as the result of a legal petition by a non-relative roommate and a county community mental health worker that was then granted in the form of an order by a judge.

I was in an extreme manic phase of bipolar disorder, previously know as manic-depressive. This state has never resulted in me being a threat to myself or others.

During hospitalization an application was made on my behalf for Social Security disability benefits. A decision and payments were started in less than eight weeks, coinciding with release from the hospital. I was placed in a rural adult foster care home, were I resided for the next two years in a prescribed, semi-drugged condition.

2014: Under similar circumstances, I was committed to another state-run facility by the petition of a community mental health center in Michigan. Again, this lasted approximately eight weeks, which would be followed by several years of depression and being in that prescribed, semi-drugged condition.

No application for disability was made on my behalf and I was without means or ability to do so myself at the time. There was no state agency (community mental health) mandated help in release, no placement to adult foster care.

It was decided that I would be released to a homeless shelter.

The state would only provide a ride from the hospital to the shelter and a psychiatric visit every four months; to prescribe, monitor and pay for medication — all now provided under “Obamacare.”

I later made the application for SSA Disability myself. It took four months for them to reach a decision (compared to less than eight weeks). It was a denial. This, even though they had awarded them previously under pretty much the exact same circumstances.

For the appeal, which involves the first actual hearing, I hired a lawyer who is not “paid” unless benefits are granted. A favorable decision results in him receiving 25% of “back payments.”

It took over two years for the Social Security Administration to schedule and conduct the hearing and another six months to reach another decision.

Denial, again.

The next and final appeal would have been by federal judges, and would have taken up to another two to three years to result in a decision that is rarely overturned at this stage in the process. 

My lawyer quit, followed by my decision that pursuing that avenue would be a waste, especially of hope.

Since 30% of new applications for disability are approved, I decided to re-apply. This time I was able to convince my local community mental health center to make copies of my entire treatment, dating back to the 1990s. This filled a box with nearly 12 inches of paperwork, which I submitted to Social Security. This time when the denial decision arrived, it stated that at no time was I “disabled,” not even during my involuntary hospitalization when a judge had ruled I was incompetent to even be in society. My previous hearing had a “jobs expert” determine I was qualified to: “work part-time, hanging clothes on hangers at a Goodwill.”

That is one side of the coin, here’s the other:

As a result of involuntary hospitalizations, my mental health, my bipolar disorder, I don’t have a steady or sterling work history. There are gaps and times I’ve had to work minimum-wage jobs, even though I have five years of college and a degree.

The problem? Job interviews. How do I explain my job history? I’ve tried lying and I’ve tried honesty, both to the same result: we hired someone “more qualified.” Employers will never tell you the end factor was that you’re bipolar, but you’re not hired for a position you’re educated and qualified for, and you’ll never make the salary you should be making.

Having bipolar disorder is not a decision you can make. Yet, it can destroy your chances at a “real” life. Often, a government agency can involuntarily stamp this permanent label on your identity, causing hidden and unjustified social prejudice that will affect your entire existence. 

So why not take that “part-time job”? Sure, give up your housing voucher, food stamps and Obamacare. Just seeing your psychiatrist for 20 minutes would then cost $350. Add in your medications, full rent, food, transportation. Sure, minimum wage at 20 to 30 hours a week will cover this, while you put away for the house you want to buy in your old age… 

You’re exactly where society put you and wants you to stay — out of the way, unseen. Oh, some food and maybe a roof over your head may be provided, but a “life”? A chance at life?

That society is shorting itself, as most individuals with bipolar disorder are highly intelligent, exceptionally creative, with unmatched drive when given a reasonable challenge. I believe that after mania, depression is the result of having no appreciative outlet that will compensate for these talent and abilities.

It’s like having a million dollars, but everyone say it is the wrong currency type and you’re not allowed to spend it!

No human resources department gets excited at the prospect at the unique creative intelligence of someone with bipolar disorder. There is no policy or open dialogue with this candidate about what is needed to maintain a healthy, productive career. There is no support or contact person at work you can go to in case you start having difficulties.

But there should be.

Frankly, people with mental illness are inherently dismissed, ignored or sent a letter saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.”

We do not have pussy hats, parades or protests.

“Celebrities” who go public with mental illness do not reflect the majority of our population as they have creative career outlets, millions of dollars and wisely choose to make their “announcement” after they’ve already made it, just adding to their publicity and attention.

“Oh, he/she must be bipolar,“ is said frequently, with a smirk and a laugh, with no thought or repercussion. I even witnessed it as the punchline on a TV Newscast in Ohio, on a story about a polar bear and her twin cubs.

Mental health prejudice and injustice is hidden, unspoken and unaddressed. And it’s the reality millions will wake up to tomorrow, and the day after.

The “suffering” in mental illness doesn’t necessarily come from the medical condition, but the way you will be treated and the life you’ll be denied.

Getty image via francescoch

Originally published: July 31, 2019
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