Why Aren’t We More Woke About Mental Health?

mental illness is not responsible for gun violence

News of a campus shooting is never good news. The fact that it had happened at the UNC Campus in my old home city of Charlotte, North Carolina made these events direct and personal. Two dead. The shooter was in custody.

So why was I so bothered when a close friend posted something online calling for better mental health treatment in response to this incident? Why did I find these words offensive? Isn’t mental health awareness a good thing? Because at the time of writing this article, the shooter had no known diagnosis or history of mental health issues. Because when you only talk about mental illness in the context of fear and violent incidents, it simply breeds more fear. It brings to mind the question, “Why aren’t we more woke about mental health?”

Isn’t it high time we stop blaming the mentally ill for mass shootings and gun violence?

As a bipolar life coach, I find myself too often on the front lines of stigma – whether combating misinformation online or listening to somebody who is crushed because they don’t believe they will ever be able to find a romantic partner. I work with both bipolar and neurotypical clients from many different walks of life, typically in the areas of entrepreneurial, wellness, and life coaching. My coaching practice inculcates many traditional coaching techniques, such as setting goals and “homework,” and paying attention to diet and exercise. But at the core, for my clients with mood disorders, stigma is nearly always there. Sometimes we dance around the subject. Other times, people break down in tears. Together, we try to heal from its wounds. This is true as much for high-functioning successful professionals as for people who are disabled.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar Type 1 nineteen years ago, at the age of 23, while traveling in Central America. I came home, got on medication, and lived a full and happy life. By and large, I have been able to pass and enjoy most of the privileges that neurotypical people take for granted. I decided to train to be a coach because I wanted to pursue meaningful work while choosing my own hours.

Equating violence with mental illness is an extremely slippery slope. If all murderers are mentally ill, then why not assume all mentally ill people are murderers?

But that’s just one example out of many of the very real barriers we face. Persons with mental illness are far more likely to be the victim of violent crime than to perpetuate it. According to a Treatment Advocacy Center report on USA Today, we are 16 times more likely to be killed by the police.  The last forced U.S. sterilization of a mentally ill person occurred in 1981, five years after I was born in Portland, Oregon. Ironically, this is the same city that I call home.

When people scapegoat the mentally ill, I try not to let it get to me. I try to be patient. I try to educate. Because I am a coach, I know how wrong the stereotypes are. I am blessed to be able to have met so many gifted, intelligent, and capable people through my practice. Whether they choose to share their label with the world is their decision to make, not mine.

Before I started coaching, I never knew how many people hated us. That has absolutely been the hardest part of this journey.

We face barriers in the workforce and in our daily lives. We are informed that we are not welcome in certain circles. In others, we are barely tolerated. We are told that we always burn bridges and destroy relationships, even as we quietly internalize the abuse and negativity of others. We are told by partners, therapists, doctors, friends, and coworkers that there is something wrong with us, and we must always be the ones to change.

I am a huge advocate of treatment and finding the right medication balance, but not in a way that takes away the power from the person who is doing all the hard work.

I also believe that stigma causes symptoms and undermines an individual’s all-important ability to form a support network.

My therapist from many years ago, Karen O. Hodges, Ph.D., urged people not to give up their own agency: “Everyone needs to develop their own sense of self and an ability to find their own way.”

Those are words I advocate for all of us, regardless of diagnosis.

Beth Gadwa is a Certified Professional Coach with over eighteen years of experience in managing bipolar disorder. Learn more about her practice at bipolarlifecoach.com.

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