Bipolar is one of the most commonly diagnosed psychiatric conditions among teens and twenty-somethings, but there has been little written about it, and few people know how to approach the topic. In her new book, Welcome to the Jungle: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Bipolar but Were Too Freaked Out to Ask (Conari Press, May 2010), Hilary Smith fills in the gap with an upfront and empowering approach to the challenges of being diagnosed with bipolar. Here she shares with us six tips for making the world a better place for people with mental illnesses.
1. Meet a person with a mental illness.
The best way to learn about mental illness is from a person who lives with one. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) has a new program called In Our Own Voices in which people living with serious mental illnesses give presentations in their communities. These free presentations are a great way to learn about what day-to-day life with a mental illness is like, and presenters (who live with conditions such as bipolar disorder and schizophrenia) are more than happy to answer questions from the audience.
2. Believe passionately in recovery.
The next time you’re walking down the street and you see a homeless person with schizophrenia, try to picture what his life would be like if he was getting adequate care for his symptoms. With proper treatment, the same man might be at home throwing a baseball with his young son, or growing prize tomatoes at his apartment. Severe mental illness does not have to equal homelessness, but until we learn to see people with severe mental illnesses as capable of recovery, their plight will all too often be seen as inevitable.
3. Support community organizations that help people with mental illnesses.
Give time or money to an organization in your community that provides outreach, shelter, job training, counseling, or healthcare services to people with mental illnesses. Mental illness affects millions of Americans every year. One day, the person most in need of these services might be a friend, relative, co-worker–or even you.
4. Support legislation that helps people with mental illnesses.
Campaign for healthcare reform banning health insurance companies from discriminating based on pre-existing conditions. Vote yes on bills for affordable housing and increased funding for mental health programs. Support campaigns to keep people with mental illnesses out of prisons and receiving the treatment they need.
5. Teach your children about mental illness.
Children often absorb their parents’ attitudes towards people who are different. Explain to your children what it means when they see people with mental illnesses acting or speaking in unusual ways. Emphasize the need for compassion and tolerance, and always put the person first, not their disorder. Teach your children not to see a “crazy lady,” but a woman struggling with a disease.
6. Talk openly about your own experience with mental illness.
Even if you’ve never struggled with a serious disorder like bipolar or schizophrenia, you’ve probably had a friend or relative who has.
Hilary Smith, author of Welcome to the Jungle is a young writer and artist living on the West Coast. She studied English Literature at the University of British Columbia, where she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after one too many insomniac bike rides in her junior year.