“Nutter. Psycho. Madman. Lunatic. Maniac. Crazy. Screw-loose. Demented.”
These are some of the hundreds of words used to describe someone with a mental disorder.
Sadly, the condition is still stigmatised.
This was brought into sharp focus on Monday night by the appearance of Adam Boland on the ABC’s Australian Story.
The former executive producer spoke with courage, wisdom, and honesty about the condition which has plagued him since childhood.
“Mental illness is as valid as any other illness,” he said. “I don’t want to do diet stories. I want to use this platform to help people.”
While Adam Boland (on Twitter @postboxadam) was supported warmly on social media, it didn’t take long for the trolls to come out of their caves.
Several tweeps questioned the validity of his diagnosis: “Bipolar and chemical imbalance debunked by neurologists.”
(For the record, bipolar is a neurological, as well as psychiatric, disorder.)
According to the World Health Organisation, more than a third of people experience mental disorders at some stage in their lives.
In Australia, a study has found it’s a bigger barrier to employment than a physical disability.
This is not surprising, when you consider mainstream media commentary surrounding the issue.
Adam Boland’s former ‘family’, on Channel 7’s Sunrise, questioned his ability to do the job.
Denying rumours they were headed for the chop, host David Koch said on Tuesday, “That was in 2011 from a bloke who had moved on, and saner heads prevailed”.
Samantha Armytage added, “Of course they were sane!” to a chorus of laughter.
“Brilliant minds stepped in,” newsreader Natalie Barr added.
To imply Adam Boland was too ‘insane’, or somehow not ‘brilliant’ enough, to do his job is cruel, malicious, and wrong.
Beyond Blue responded appropriately, tweeting, “An unfortunate use of language – we would hope it doesn’t reflect attitudes to mental health”.
Research by the Queensland Alliance for Mental Health has found being spoken of like this has a huge impact on self-esteem.
“They (people with a mental illness) are frequently the object of ridicule or derision, and are depicted within the media as being… incompetent or violent.”
In the UK, the Sun newspaper used its front page to describe them as dangerous killers: “1200 Killed by Mental Patients”, screamed the inflammatory, and incorrect, headline.
After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 37, performer and writer Stephen Fry (pictured right) decided to, “fight the public stigma to give a clearer picture of mental illness”.
“Once understanding is there, we can all stand up and not be ashamed of ourselves, then it makes the rest of the population realise we are just like them, but with something extra,” he said, eloquently.
Mental illness is a member of most families.
Like many people, I bear witness to these highs and lows: the suicide notes; the smashed plates; the rivers of tears; the dark sleepless nights; and uncertainty about the future.
But even sufferers can be prejudiced.
Another’s mental anguish is characterised as an inability to “pull himself together”, or questioned as an “excuse because he stuffed up”.
One wonders whether repealing section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act will lead to a widening of free speech provisions, vilifying those with mental disorders.
For beneath our veneer of civility lies a fear of difference.
I hope our future is not determined by our past: The etymology of the word ‘stigma’ can be traced to the archaic word for ‘brand’, meaning a scar left by a hot iron.
Certainly, we need more people, as brave as Boland and Fry, to speak out.
But we also need more people to speak out in their defence when their condition is belittled, scorned, or denied.
Then we will have a new dictionary to deal with this disorder.
The cast of Sunrise later apologised for their comments. David Koch tweeted, “I innocently used a common turn of phrase which has caused offense to some. That wasn’t my intention”. Meanwhile, Samantha Armytage wrote, “Apologies to all about this morning’s poor choice of words. My grandfather was bipolar. I would NEVER make light of it”.