The struggles of people who suffer from any mental illness are all too often hidden or ignored. No matter how progressive we like to think we are, there's still a stigma attached to mental illness. People who have conditions ranging from depression to schizophrenia to personality disorders are often forced to suffer in silence, fearing judgment from others for something they can't control.
I've probably represented well over 100 people who have mental illness in a variety of hearings. I've done mental health commitments, where the client's condition was so severe they'd become a danger to themselves or others. I've advocated for clients trying to get Social Security Disability benefits after their symptoms became so debilitating it prevented them from working. I've handled numerous criminal cases where mental illness played a large role in the commission of the crime.
Not only do I have a lot of experience with mental illness in my professional life, but I have plenty of experience in my personal life, as well.
What all this experience has taught me is that, for whatever reason, the mental health population is still a forgotten one. Although a recent study showed that 1 in 5 Americans suffers from some form of mental illness, those that do are regularly treated differently than people who have a physical condition.
I regularly hear from clients that they don't want their mental illness discussed in court or used as part of a defense because they're too embarrassed. The mental health treatment provided in prisons is poor. Health insurance companies put a cap on how many times you can visit your therapist in a year. I've had Administrative Law Judges tell me they would not grant disability benefits for somebody because the claimant “only” had mental health issues, no physical, and mental health is not disabling. Judges and juries often ignore any mental health component of a case.
There's no shaming of people who have physical disabilities; why do we shame or ignore people with mental disabilities? There's a great internet meme that accurately illustrates the difference between how we treat people with mental illness versus those with physical illnesses.
Robin Williams' recent suicide has shined a light on a previously taboo topic. Depression is real. Mental illness is real. It's not something to be embarrassed about, and it's certainly not something that should have a stigma attached.
Many people are now coming out and sharing their stories of how they've silently struggled with mental illness. My friend, Nick Falsone, a blogger and editor at my local newspaper, shared his story on the front page of Sunday's paper. His bravery, and the bravery of everybody else speaking out, is admirable and an inspiration.
My hope is that, moving forward, more people will recognize that mental illness is a real thing. It's not something a person can just snap out of. It has an effect on almost every aspect of their life. As a lawyer, I see just how many areas of a person's life it can affect. The legal system needs to recognize it; society needs to recognize it. And then we can move from an attitude of judgment and embarrassment to one of acceptance.