I need to work harder. I wish that my blog and the articles I wrote for Teen Vogue, Good Housekeeping, Dr. Oz, Yahoo News, Ravishly, The Fix, Headspace, and even the fashion magazine, Byrdie, would go viral. Last night I got the feeling that people don’t assume it is possible that a person with schizophrenia could wake up in the morning, grab their coffee and sit down to an issue of the Washington Post, New York Times or Boston Globe. I’m here to say it is possible, and it is happening in more homes than just mine (although my subscriptions are not paper, but electronic).
Yesterday, I was furious, exhausted, and felt completely beaten by an article in the Washington Post. Of course, the article was about schizophrenia, and the first sentence pulled out of the article is, “Her “perfect child” was now schizophrenic and homeless.” It is hard for me to imagine that a staff writer at a paper as big and prestigious as the Washington Post, can’t even bother to try and use disability friendly language. I know not everyone who has schizophrenia is opposed to this language, but the majority of advocates, academics, and mental health professionals no longer refer to people as schizophrenic – something a writer at a major paper should be aware of if he is going to write stories about people in our community.
And of course, it is a story that we have all seen time and time again: A parent’s perspective. Homelessness. My once golden child is now defective. Do you know how hard this story is to read? I admit that homelessness is a shameful problem in this country (it is the cause I give the most time, effort and money toward), and yes, I think we should have way more psychiatric facilities for people who are medication resistant, or chronically psychotic, or even to get temporary treatment. And I even believe that there needs to be some change in the laws about getting someone treatment who may not be deemed a danger to themselves or others but is clearly at risk, but even with all that, the article hit me as stereotypical and highly stigmatizing.
Our mental health system is in shambles, but another story about how a person with schizophrenia is causing his or her family distress because they won’t take their medication, and have disappeared into the shadows and unknown territory of our urban streets does not help those of us who have the illness. And does another story about homelessness and mental health push people into action? I don’t think so. A story about how a fourth of the people living on the street are mentally ill doesn’t get people to act. If it did, things would be different by now, because this story is worn out, told again and again.
Why not tell the story of people who have received help and gotten off the streets? Doesn’t a story like that help us to realize that we need to do something different? Doesn’t a success story let people know that we are not (like many people believe) throw away humans without hope or value, but people who have an illness that is possible to manage and with treatment and care recovery is at least a possibility?
To be truthful, I don’t know the story to tell to get people to wake up to the plight of the most vulnerable members of our society. I don’t know which stories would get people to vote for representatives who make the treatment of the mentally ill a priority. I’m not sure that any story can get people to act. If seeing the faces of people, both women, men, and children living without shelter, in squalor, and having many of them be out of touch with reality, isn’t enough to change laws, hearts, and minds, then maybe stories aren’t enough. Especially the stories we have been telling. We have to find a new way to talk and write about the struggles of severe mental illness and what it does to a person, a family, a community.
I don’t have the answers, but I hope I can dig deep into my creativity and one day tell a story that gets people to see the whole picture of schizophrenia and those who have it. I’ve been a person who refused treatment. I have been that person who left the comfort of their home. I believe there is hope for every single person with this illness. I believe that a person living on the streets today, could one day be a person reading a major paper while they drink their morning coffee –if I didn’t believe that, I doubt that article would have made an impact on me.