The cold opening in my hospital gown trailed down my bare back, reminding me just how much of myself was on display. I laid in my bed in the Intensive Care Unit, grappling with my suicide attempt. People rushed in and out of my room; I was forced to sit in my vulnerability.
“Being a believing Christian, I know people who kill themselves go to hell,” the nurse taking the blood pressure cuff off my arm declared. “You just escaped damnation.”
That was four years ago. Now my stomach is in knots with social media buzz, reviews and accolades for the new film Birds Of Prey, which tells the story of Harley Quinn, the “psychotic” and violent former girlfriend of The Joker. It is the film sequel to The Suicide Squad—as if that reference was not insensitive enough.
I had a hard time watching the recent Academy Awards for the same reason, since The Joker, the highest-grossing R-rated film in history, was nominated for 11 awards. Joaquin Phoenix ultimately won best actor for his portrayal of the fictitious Arthur Fleck, who is mentally ill and goes on a killing spree.
At the BAFTA awards before them, mental health advocate Prince William told Phoenix that The Joker was brilliant. But no one is asking what type of damage movies like these are doing to those of us who suffer with mental illness. No one is asking what triggers are present in Birds Of Prey. And no one seems concerned about the stigmas these films may reflect, amplify and expand in their representations of our experiences.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, approximately 1 in 5 people suffer from a mental illness each year—which means that likely everyone either knows someone with a mental illness or has a mental illness themselves. These challenges affect people across lines of race, religion, gender, age and economic background. Depression accounts for more disability than any other disease worldwide. Suicide rates in the U.S. have increased by 30 percent since 2000.
But I hid my mental illness for over 20 years because of stigma and shame.
To outsiders, I appeared to be living an ideal life: I was married to the hospital CEO, attending required charity events, living in a 5,000- square foot home and parenting three healthy children. But I struggled to shower more than twice a month, and some days couldn’t even leave my bed.
Hiding my suicidal urges felt like the only choice—until hiding wasn’t an option anymore.
In December of 2015, after I swallowed over 200 pills, paramedics rushed me to that hospital where my husband was CEO. They saved my life, and a psychiatrist there told my husband he shouldn’t bring me back to this hospital again. If necessary, he advised, I should go to a different hospital where people didn’t know us.
Demi Lovato openly wept at the recent Grammy Awards as she sang her new song, “Anyone,” about her personal struggles with mental health, encouraging others to speak up. But when I recently submitted my memoir about my struggles with mental illness to a well-known celebrity book club for consideration, an editor responded that the subject matter was unsuitable.
When there is a mass shooting or other public acts of violence, many point to poor mental health as a cause, re-enforcing the offensive idea that the mentally ill are dangerous. “Mental illness and hatred pull the trigger,” Donald Trump tweeted after recent shootings, “not the gun.” But according to the Department of Health and Human Services, the vast majority of people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else; only 3 to 5 percent of violent acts can be attributed to people living with mental illnesses.
During these times of actual violence and crisis, many people with mental illness are encouraged to come forward and talk about our suffering. No one wants to belong to a group that is being labeled “crazy” or capable of acts that would be deemed evil, and our stories could be powerful antidotes to the stigma statements like that tweet reinforce.
But popular cultural representations of mental health challenges have become a strong motivator for people like me to stay silent instead—and avoid seeking treatment. In fact, a recent social identity study of Amazon and Facebook employees who reported having a mental illness showed that employees who associated negative stigmas with mental illness were less likely to seek help.
There is, however, reason to hope.
My 25-year-old daughter, Rachael, and I are traveling to all 50 states to donate my memoir to local libraries. Along the way, we’ve met with local government officials, local news reporters and mental health advocacy groups to speak out and try to help remove stigmas of mental illness.
Growing awareness of the increase in mental illness has also led to a few innovations in treatment options and access. The Federal Communications Commission recently approved a new “988” number for people to call with mental health disturbances. Making a simple to remember number will also put mental health emergencies on par with physical health emergencies for callers who use 911.
Reports show millennials are leading the way across college campuses by being more comfortable using mental health apps. They report these interactions feel more private than sessions with traditional counselors. They are using apps such as YOU and TAO to customize individual help.
I am light years away from that hospital room where the cruel judgement of a nurse filled the room. My wish is that no one else will ever have to hide their mental illness from a shaming world. If we can get past poor representation and move toward more open conversation, we may finally get there.