Yesterday, I reviewed Leave of Absence by Tanya J. Peterson. And today, Tanya is here on my blog with a really stunning and open guest post that you should definitely take the time to read. Check it out:
There’s a scene in Leave of Absence in which Penelope’s fiancé William has been confronted by a friend named Rod. Rod just can’t understand why William insists on marrying Penelope now that she has developed schizophrenia. Completely serious, Rod tells William,
“It’s gotta freak you out, man. It would freak anyone out. Doesn’t she think that aliens are going to abduct her, or that the CIA is out to get her or something like that? Aren’t you scared? People with schizophrenia are unpredictable and violent. What if voices tell her to kill you, William? You go to sleep one night, and she sneaks into the kitchen, grabs a knife, and stabs you or something.”
Quite aptly, William shouts at him, among other things, “Why don’t you stop watching so much TV and start living in the real world?”
Rod’s beliefs are based on very common stereotypes that exist about mental illness. Mainstream media has caused hurt and harm. Television shows and movies have, for decades, painted a disturbing and inaccurate picture of people with mental illness. More often than not, people with mental illness are portrayed as people to be either feared or ridiculed. Characters are often wildly unpredictable, maniacally dangerous, and uncontrollably angry. Or they’re self-centered, needy attention-seekers who are blowing little things out of proportion. Sometimes they’re depicted as unstable or as bumbling idiots. These stereotypes are used, alone or in various combinations, because they are entertaining, and entertainment makes money.
It isn’t just fictional shows that stereotype this way. The news media can be guilty of this, too. Lately, whenever a crime is committed, it seems that the accusation is immediate that the perpetrator is mentally ill. In reality, mental illness does not make someone violent. To be sure, people who commit crimes are not thinking and behaving in acceptable ways. However, only a tiny percentage of people who commit crimes have a mental illness.
Another negative stereotype centers on behavioral health hospitals. Mystery shrouds such places, and a common misconception brings to mind images of hospitals like those in horror movies or in movies like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. People who are “sent” to a behavioral health hospital (now commonly referred to as centers rather than hospitals) are perceived to be ostracized, removed from the rest of society because of their insanity. And when their treatment in the behavioral health hospital has ended, people too often return home to find themselves shunned. I know this because I have spent time in a behavioral health center.
I have bipolar I disorder and anxiety difficulties. In Leave of Absence, Penelope wrestles with schizophrenia. She has been admitted into Airhaven Behavioral Health Center so that the right combination of medication can be found to help minimize her hallucinations and delusions. Oliver, another main character, was admitted not because he’s a danger to others but because he’s a danger to himself. He needs help with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and complicated mourning. It’s people like Penelope and Oliver who need help and support. It’s not society who needs protection from them.
With the characters of the story, I wanted to show what the above-mentioned mental illnesses are like for people who experience them. Similarly, I chose to set much of the story at Airhaven because I wanted to provide readers with an accurate depiction of what these places are like. Of course Airhaven is fictitious, but I did use the behavioral health center I was in as a foundation. Much of the things that Oliver and Penelope experience are things that I experienced as a patient. They go to daily groups, such as art and music therapy. I did, too. However, I did change things up a bit. Regarding the art activities, for example, I added things that as I counselor I know are effective group techniques. It was definitely helpful to draw on my experiences as a patient as well as a professional.
It’s this background that has motivated me to work to increase true understanding and empathy in order to break the power of the negative stereotypes and end stigma. Stigma is an ugly thing. It leads to shame and embarrassment, and it makes people afraid to speak up and seek help. It can cause isolation and loneliness. Penelope has lost friends and is socially withdrawn because of the stigma against her. It can also lead to discrimination.
When I went to a behavioral health center for the first time, I had been working in a school district with which I had a long and successful history. I needed to resign from my job, so I had to tell them the reason. I instantly lost the respect I had once received. Following my time in the behavioral health center, I applied for numerous positions, including the one from which I had resigned, but was never even interviewed for another job. When I visited the school in person and was completely shunned, one person did speak to me in order to tell me that I was no longer trusted. I know of a teacher who resigned due to health reasons, and after hospitalizations for physical illness was able to reapply for a position and was rehired. He was welcomed back with open arms. My issue, though, was not a physical illness but a mental illness (which, incidentally is actually physical and attributed to brain chemistry). My hospital was not a “regular” hospital but a behavioral health hospital. Therefore, the stereotypes, misunderstandings, and stigma kicked in.
I didn’t write Leave of Absence about myself or for myself. I do have personal and professional perspectives to bring to the table (or the writing desk), but I’m writing for everyone. The Penelopes and the Olivers need empathy. Don’t all human beings deserve understanding?