Beaufort News

First person: Fighting the stigma of mental illness

In 1996, I was diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder, a mental illness.

Undiagnosed it dramatically impacted me, my wife, Susan, our sons, family and friends. I've been in recovery since then working with my psychiatrist, taking medications, committed to therapy, study, prayer and reflection.

Despite the daily challenges I now embrace the many gifts my illness affords me.

I've hesitated disclosing my illness for fear of being stigmatized, dismissed and rejected. My fears extended to my family, to wanting to protect them from the stigma.

I attend a weekly Connections Meeting of peers sponsored by National Alliance on Mental Illness Lowcountry. Recently we discussed the importance acceptance plays in our recovery. We spoke of Patrick Kennedy's courage, raising awareness through his self-disclosure. We spoke of his "coming out."

As I wrestled with this, I asked myself these questions.

If I accepted my illness, would I hide it from others? If I had diabetes, heart disease, cancer or another illness, would I live in fear of being found out?

My answer "no," and that is why I am sharing this with you today.

On too many nights, I witnessed the pain others share as they struggle to find acceptance within themselves and society -- a pain so deep for some that the allure of suicide appears to be the solution.

Too often mass murderers define the face of the mentally ill. Although a tragedy, it is also tragic that many people suffering from mental illness slip through the cracks.

Worse yet is the belief by some that, as Donald Trump told commentator George Stephanopoulos recently, "these people want to slip through the cracks." Later in the program, Stephanopoulos declared, "Every single country in the world has crazy people."

Are we crazy?

No.

We have an illness and deserve to be treated with dignity. Our illness affects our brain function and, if left untreated, can distort reality. Further into the program Matt Bai, a national political columnist with Yahoo News, responded to the question of evil in the world.

"Call it evil, call it mental illness," he said.

How can these two phrases coexist?

Are we evil people?

We are not.

We were once thought to be possessed, demonic and burned alive. Today there is more information, yet only through education can this mountain of ignorance be climbed.

I invite you to explore the information and services NAMI Lowcountry offers our community. Learn more about this health crisis at NAMIlowcountry.org.

There are services for those who live with mental illness and their families.

There was a day in 1996 when I didn't think this subject was worth my time. I was wrong. The greatest delusion I suffered from was that there was an "us and a them."

Today my reality is no longer distorted; I know there is only us. There is no division in God.

Please help give meaning to Mental Health Awareness Week 2015. Too often, I and my peers are hesitant to disclose our illness for fear of the stigma. Many are afraid to lose jobs, respect and future opportunities because of prevailing societal attitudes.

Help give voice to the voiceless.

If you know someone or are someone who suffers with a mental illness, you are not alone. Reach out to NAMI, myself or someone you trust. Together we can make a difference. I thank God for the gift of recovery and the gift Susan, Ryan and Michael are to me and the many others through whom my recovery is made possible.

To borrow a phrase, "today I am happy, joyous and free."

I have learned it's always darkest before the dawn.

Together we can walk into the light.

Thank you for walking with us.

IF YOU GO

On Nov. 7, NAMI Lowcountry will host "Footprints in the Sand" at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head Island.

Registration is at 8:30 a.m. The walk begins at 10 a.m. with food and fellowship. Cranford Hollow will perform from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Proceeds will be used to raise awareness and support education and support services.

For more information, contact NAMI Lowcountry at http://NAMIlowcountry.org, NAMI@hargray.com or call 843-681-2200.

Ray Horn Jr. is a Bluffton resident.

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