why the term “mental illness” sucks

“Upgrade ya, lemme upgrade ya” -Beyonce

___________

Hey guys.

So yeah, you probably noticed that I haven’t posted anything since April, but, luckily for you, I’ve been writing every single day since April.  So I have a lot of posts in my journals, which I will transfer over here to the blog as the weeks go by.  You can expect to see a blog post from me per month, at the very least.

I am back.

(Insert the song “I believe in Miracles (You sexy thing)” by Hot Chocolate.)

The first thing I want to address is the fact that in reality, I have been diagnosed with what the medical field calls is a “mental illness.”  (This is the appropriate term for the category that bipolar disorder falls into.)

 This post is not to declare that I no longer identify with my bipolar diagnosis or with the fact that my psychiatrist says that I have a mental illness.  I just want to explain why I think that the entire phrase and approach to mental illness should be changed, or upgraded in the very least.

Here is why:

I am currently on medication.  I have been since last October.  So for one year, my brain has been working with different chemicals other than the ones it naturally produces.

Do you know what kind of medicine I am on?

Lamictal.

“Lamictal (lamotrigine) is an anti-epileptic medication, also called an anticonvulsant.

Lamictal is used either alone or in combination with other medications to treat epileptic seizures in adults and children.”

It is used to treat epilepsy.

That’s right.  Epilepsy.

No, I do not suffer from epilepsy.

(And no, my psychiatrist is not confused, and her medical degree is totally legit.)

I did not know this until last year, but the reason I am being treated for bipolar disorder with a medication that prevents seizures in the brain is because a manic episode with psychosis is viewed as a sort of seizure in the brain. (Stay with me, I’m about to get all science-y on you, but trust me you will understand it.)

A manic episode is viewed as an influx in the brain of all of the “good” chemicals, like dopamine and serotonin.  These chemicals make you feel good. (After exercise or wonderful transcendent experiences, these chemicals are released in your brain.  So think of how you feel in those situations.)

In my bipolar brain, those chemicals get released at random, usually without much warning, and very similarly to a seizure.  Only it’s a “seizure” that causes just my brain to freak out, not my whole body.

Due to the outpouring of those “good” chemicals, my brain gets literally “high,” as if I am on a hallucinogenic.

So basically I become high on mushrooms.

Without the mushrooms.

And this is all a NEUROLOGICAL (brain) THING.

That’s why I am on a neurological medicine.

So my question to you is this:

Why is bipolar disorder called a “mental illness” when in fact, a more accurate and appropriate term for what is actually happening in my brain is a “neurological imbalance?” (Yes, I understand that some people use the term “chemical imbalance,” which is more PC.  But I don’t think it is specific enough.)

I don’t get it, honestly.

Let’s look at the term “mental illness.”

I understand that my neurological imbalance usually has a direct effect on my cognitive (mental) functioning, thus the seemingly logical reasoning for describing people like me as “mentally ill.” (BOOM! I scienced the sh*t out of that sentence.)

But here’s the problem.

The term “mentally ill” carries STIGMA.

(Hella stigma.)

What do you think of when you hear that someone is “mentally ill?”

I think of someone that is out of their mind, unable to function, laying down and drooling, with the cognitive capacity of a 5 year old child.

I know that’s not what everyone else thinks, but it’s what I have grown up to think as a result of how the medical community has handled public awareness of mental illnesses for my entire life.

It has been handled in a really crappy way, honestly.

I refuse to use the term “mentally ill” because

that is not what I am.

My brain has a neurological imbalance.

Get out of my face with that ugly, pejorative, and stigmatized term

“mentally ill.”

STOP

USING

IT.

Ok onto the next thing.

(My husband just brought me pizza in bed as i’m feverishly typing, so I am suddenly energized to write more. God bless Dustin Ahkuoi.)

I realized something after two “psychotic episodes” (not my favorite terminology either) and two long stays in two different mental hospitals.

Mental hospitals, God bless them for what they are attempting to do, actually are the worst possible environment for me when I am going through an “episode” (I call them “trips” because my brain is literally high on mushrooms without the mushrooms.)

When I am on a bipolar “trip,” I am in need of four things to help me “come down”:

(sometimes medicine is good with this process but for now I’m focusing on the main necessities)

I need:

  1. Sleep
  2. Healthy food
  3. The understanding and care of someone I love and trust
  4. Exposure to Nature

The mental hospitals I have been to do not provide adequate exposure to nature.

And I’m just going to be honest: They serve crappy food.

In addition, I do not have access to a person I love and trust at all times,

in fact,

random strangers are given the authority to shoot my butt cheek with a tranquilizer whenever they feel like it’s appropriate.  

They can also (literally) drag or throw me in a dark, padded room with no windows, whenever they feel like it’s appropriate

(yes, even if it is just that I am annoying them with my cries for my parents.)

Listen to me. This is very important.

In a hospital stay,

Because I am scared due to the fact that I don’t have anyone I love or trust around me, and I am often mistreated,

Because I do not eat well,

and because I am not exposed to nature,

my anxiety levels are through the roof, making it nearly impossible for me to sleep.

So the medical solution to all of this?

Shoot me up with more meds.

Tranquilize me with more meds.

Pacify me with more meds.

(insert Chloe face here.  if you do not know what the Chloe face is, google it.)

Do you think this is an appropriate, humane way to handle bipolar patients?

Do you think that when I get out of the hospital, I will just go back to normal life, neurologically balanced and untouched by trauma?

Absolutely not.

Hospitalizations can actually be linked to severe clinical depression.

(They were for me.)

Guys.

There needs to be another (cheaper, smarter) solution to how we treat the “mentally ill” and how we talk about the “mentally ill.”

And I think I have an idea of how to get there.

More on that later.

Thanks for reading.  Hopefully you understand me a little better by reading this.

Have a great dayyyyyyyyyy!

p.s.  this is not to say that all mental hospitals are necessarily “bad” (even though I argue that they are not the best solution.) I also don’t mean to say that all staff involved are under-educated, abusive, ignorant people (not all of them are.) I know some great employees of medical hospitals that are educationally qualified and actually really do care about treating human beings like human beings.  So good on them.  The sad thing?   In my opinion, they are the minority.

16 Comments

  1. This is brilliant. I am a licensed professional counselor and agree with all of this. So glad your voice is out there – hope people will listen.

  2. Thank you for sharing, Genevieve. If the conversation ever comes up during which I can share this insight I look forward to doing so. I don’t think many people know about this and they way you write about it is so helpful!

  3. Thank you I know this road my son suffers from Bipolar and has gone on and off meds now waiting for a bed to get back on meds .,I’m asking you how can I help my son while he goes into treatment? I feel so bad one understands him he’s a great man .I pray so much to have him back or for someone to love him . How can I help him ?

    Thanks for taking time to tell this story I commend you.

    Stay strong
    Jackie .

  4. So well said! I think you are right on about necessary changes to how hospitals operate & their protocols It’s much like how childbirth got so far away from letting mommas birth in a safe nurturing environment to so many interventions, medications, etc. It had taken a revolution to allow changes in the way we view giving birth.
    YOU can be part of the change in how we view & care for everyone dealing with these health issues. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the equivalent of a birthing center, caring for individuals in crisis. Sending you a huge hug! Blessings to you and Dustin!

    Msry

    1. Mary, wow I just got chills. I am working on this as we speak. It will take me years to get through the schooling involved with changing this system, but I am determined to do so. Thank you for the support! People like you, along with my passion for those still suffering, help keep me going.

  5. Keep these blog posts coming! And keep making waves, beauty. The glimpses into your world are inspiring and important – people need to hear it.

  6. Amen bipo sister!! I completely agree. The hospitals are ridiculous and humiliating. I’m not a two year old. I’m a strong woman with a Master’s degree. I’m also not a “mentally” I’ll criminal using an insanity plea. My chemicals are simply unbalanced. I have bipolar depression. I also take lamictal as a
    Mood stabilizer. I’ve been on everything. In addition, I take latuda, cymbalta and a small
    Dose of clonopin (sp?) for anxiety at night. So far it’s ok. I still have my days when I can’t function. I’m glad you are blogging as well. It’s so important to get the correct info out there to people. Stay beautiful.

  7. This is so insightful Genevieve! I passed it on to a daughter who has a “neurological imbalance”. I am sure she, and I know I got a lot out of it. Do you notify people when you add to this article? Thanks, Honey! Marge Forgette Rafftery

    1. Hello Marge! I actually don’t add to my blog posts, unless absolutely necessary. I will probably update you on what I’m learning and thinking via another blog post in the future! 🙂 Thanks for reading, and sharing. You’re the best.

  8. You are right on! Having worked inside a psychiatric hospital for one year (as an art therapist) i can second the facts you relate to the T. Hopefully you will bring more awareness and better options to these issues with your deep self-reflexion and fresh point of view. Love your posts. Look forward to getting more inside looks into that fine head of yours!

  9. Yes, you hit the nail on the head about psychiatric hospitals! If someone is depressed and anxious they should be put in a calm, loving healthy setting with people that can provide support around the clock if needed 💗

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