Yesterday marked the end of Mental Health Awareness Month. Did anyone notice? With two mass shootings in America during May which killed at least 31 people (most of them children), mental health has been in the news lately. Some blame those killings on mental illness, although neither shooter had been diagnosed with one. Persons diagnosed with a mental illness cause only four percent of violent crimes in America. It is more common for those with a mental illness to be the victim of a violent crime than the perpetrator of it. But I will leave gun control for another blog post.
I believe we are all crazy in our own way, as most of us have some form of mental illness. But most of us live everyday, productive lives despite our craziness. Somehow, we can manage it. For example, I am claustrophobic. Put me in a stuck, crowded elevator, and I will start to panic immediately. A plane trip becomes almost unbearable if I don‘t get an aisle seat. When I read a news report several years ago of a man killed on a plane by fellow passengers when he went crazy and rushed the cockpit, I thought that could have been me—and might be someday. As I have often said, claustrophobia is irrational, but the fear is real. I also have tinnitus—a constant ringing in my ear. When I first came down with it, I couldn’t sleep and could barely function. The only thing I could focus on was that constant ringing. It took over a month to “make friends with the ringing,” where I could focus on something other than the noise in my head. And it didn’t help to know that there is no cure, meaning the ringing would stay with me forever. But some are not so lucky. I recently read that the CEO of Texas Roadhouse restaurants died by suicide because he could no longer handle his tinnitus.
But living with tinnitus and claustrophobia is easy compared to what some people have to live with. So, in honor of May being Mental Health Awareness Month, I want to make us more aware of three forms of mental illness that some of my family and friends suffer with. And to help that awareness become more accurate, I will use only documentary films to discuss them.
Also known as manic depression, a person with bipolar disorder will have extreme shifts in mood—cycles over time, ranging from deep depression to extremely elevated mania. While people with bipolar disorder may have difficulty managing everyday life or maintaining relationships, many afflicted individuals live outstandingly successful lives, particularly between their episodes of depression and mania.
More than 10 million Americans have bipolar disorder. It affects men and women equally and all races, ethnic groups, and socioeconomic classes. Although bipolar disorder more commonly develops in older teenagers and young adults, it can appear in children as young as six. You might recognize many of these people with bipolar disorder: Mariah Carey, Carrie Fisher, Mel Gibson, Brian Wilson, Ernest Hemingway, Ted Turner, Frank Sinatra, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Patty Duke, Winston Churchill, Kanye West, Selma Gomez, Sting, Florence Nightingale, Buzz Aldrin, and Virginia Woolf.
The episodes of both depression and mania are dangerous. During the depression, death by suicide is a constant worry, as the person sees their lives as hopeless. But the mania can be even worse. The person has inflated self-esteem or grandiosity. They rarely sleep more than a few hours at night—if at all. They talk a mile a minute with racing thoughts and are easily distracted, often by unimportant details. In addition, the person usually has an increase in goal-directed activity as they attempt to make millions of dollars, save the poor, and resolve all social injustices. Some persons turn hyper-religious and might have “visions” of God, Christ, or departed loved ones. But with such thoughts and goals comes excessive involvement in activities that have a high potential for painful consequences, such as engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments. You could read all the books written about bipolar disorder, but you will not fully understand it until you see it yourself.
Sadly, under current laws (at least in Texas), mental help for a person with bipolar is limited. The person can be involuntarily placed in a behavioral facility only if they are a danger to themselves or others. And being stupid (e.g., unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments) does not qualify. On the depression side, all the patient needs to say is they do not have suicidal thoughts to stay out of the treatment center. On the manic side, all the patient needs to do is “act normal.” Typically, a person in a manic episode involuntarily placed in a behavioral facility will be heavily dosed with antipsychotic drugs for a few days. Then, the patient acts normal and says all the right things and is returned to the streets but still manic, often returning to the facility a short time later to do it all over again.
Fortunately, medication helps—if you can keep the person taking them. For who doesn’t love the feeling mania brings? Why would you want to take anything that takes away that high? From my experience, stress exacerbates mood swings, so a person with bipolar needs to take their medication, learn their stress triggers and change their lifestyle to lessen or avoid those triggers.
The documentary Of Two Minds[i] follows the lives of a handful of persons with bipolar disorder. Here is the trailer:
You can watch Of Two Minds on YouTube or rent it on Amazon Prime Video for two dollars. I love what one person in the documentary says: “We are your mother, we’re your sister, we’re your brother, we’re friends, we’re your neighbors, and we’re out there, and we want to be respected for who we are, and we don’t want to be in the closet.”
A person with an eating disorder has a severely destructive relationship with food. Out-of-control eating (or not eating) rituals and obsessive food or body-related thoughts dominate that person’s life. Anorexia and bulimia are the most well-known eating disorders.
An estimated 4.39 million women and 1.09 men have an eating disorder. Every 62 minutes, a person dies due to an eating disorder. About one in five persons with an eating disorder attempt death by suicide. A traumatic experience brings about an eating disorder in about 30 percent of those who have one. But sadly, 75 percent of people with eating disorders do not seek professional help.
You might recognize many of these people with an eating disorder: Princess Diana, Russell Brand, Paula Abdul, Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Elton John, Jane Fonda, Taylor Swift, Angelina Jolie, Karen Carpenter, and Jessica Alba.
The documentary Thin[ii] follows several patients at a Florida treatment center specializing in eating disorders. One of them, Brittany, had an eating disorder since age eight when she binged everything in sight. Now a teenager, she dropped from 185 pounds to 97 pounds in a single year. Here is a discussion between Brittany and her counselor:
Counselor: “Why are you so concerned about what other people think of you?”
Brittany: “Because that’s what I’ve always cared about my whole life. That’s the reason I lost weight in the first place. This is what I want. I want to be thin. And if it takes dying to get there? So be it.”
Here is my favorite scene from the film:
You can watch Thin on HBO Max or rent it on Amazon Prime for three dollars.
Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD):
OCD is a pattern of overwhelming thoughts and fears (the obsession) that lead to repetitive behaviors (the compulsion), which interfere with daily activities and overall health. The obsessions vary from person to person, but common ones include order and symmetry, worries about turning off the gas or locking the door, counting or following a particular order of actions, and germ phobia.
In the U.S., three million Americans struggle with OCD. According to the World Health Organization, anxiety disorders like OCD are more prevalent in developed countries than developing countries. OCD affects men and women equally. Researchers have also noticed a link between childhood trauma and OCD.
You might recognize many of these people with OCD: Daniel Radcliffe, Cameron Diaz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Megan Fox, Justin Timberlake, David Beckham, Katy Perry, Howard Hughes, Howie Mandel, Billy Bob Thornton, Charlize Theron, and Nicolas Cage.
The documentary OCD: The War Inside[iii] tracts the lives of several individuals with OCD. Tricia is my favorite. Here is a scene from the film:
You can watch the documentary on YouTube for free.
In another part of the film, Tricia says this:
“I was showering ten to twelve times a day. I started off with just, like, you know, soap on my body, shampoo, conditioner. Then it became soap, shampoo, shampoo, conditioner, soap, shampoo, conditioner on my whole body. Then, then it became dish soap, shampoo, conditioner, soap. Then it became dish soap, shampoo, conditioner, soap. Then it became laundry detergent, shampoo, conditioner, dish soap. Then it became Comet [cleanser], laundry detergent—yeah, I knew I had a problem when I was like using Comet to clean my body and laundry detergent. When your whole day is OCD, if you can get like 14 seconds, one minute, two minutes, anything, it’s worth it. It’s worth scrubbing the skin off of your body just to get two minutes of peace and quiet. Like when it’s all day, every day when you go to bed thinking about it, you wake up thinking about it, you have nightmares about it, that two minutes is worth more than anything in the world.”
Notice how Tricia’s thoughts and actions continually spiral downward into a “parade of horribles” until she can barely function. It is a hard way to live. Fortunately, medication and therapy can help those with OCD, like most mental illnesses.
In his book, Turtles All the Way Down (about a teenager suffering from OCD), author John Green sums up how I feel about mental illness: “There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t.”
But people with mental illness need the help of others. We need to drop the stigma associated with mental illness and stop thinking about those with mental illness as somehow less of a person or less than ourselves. As Glenn Close said, “What mental health needs are more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.” For the help of all of us, let’s have that candor and conversation.
[i] Of Two Minds:
- Production Company: MadPix
- Directors: Douglas Blush and Lisa J. Klein
- Starring: Terri Cheney, Carlton Davis, and Cheri Keating
- Release date: April 2012
- Producers: R. J. Cutler, Lauren Greenfield, Amanda Micheli, and Ted Skillman
- Director: Lauren Greenfield
- Starring: Shelly Guillory, Brittany Robinson, and Alisa Williams
- Release date: October 21, 2006
[iii] OCD: The War Inside:
- Production Company: National Film Board of Canada
- Directors: David Hoffort and Mark Pancer
- Starring: Marvin Freedman, Tricia Huggins, and Chris Krija
- Release date: October 3, 2002