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By: Rose B
Finding Hope
Qualification: M/A
Finding Hope in a Hopeless World

Associate Blogger: 

Little did I know when I named the advocacy organization I founded how hard it would become to live up to the spirit of its name: North Carolina Mental Hope. While the geographic scope of the organization is a single state, the feelings of frustration and despair that so often accompany mental illness are universal. So, too, are public and political apathy towards mental health issues.

So when I was asked to write about hope, I felt ... well, rather hopeless. What was there to be hopeful about in either my circumstances or the collective circumstances of individuals and family members who deal with mental illness? What thin lifeline of hope could I find? The lifeline's name turned out to be Brandon Marshall.

Until he "outed" himself at a press conference in early August as having been diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, I knew nothing of Marshall, a wide receiver for the National Football League's Miami Dolphins. Whether you're a sports fan or not, though, there's something particularly engaging about an athlete opening up about mental illness. After all, pro sports like baseball, football, and hockey are for "real men"; they are worlds where strength and agility are revered and weakness disdained. 

While Marshall's openness about his struggles with BPD was the spark for my renewed hope, it wasn't the flame. But it did remind me of another high-profile pro sports player who has become a high-profile mental health advocate since first detailing his struggles with depression: Los Angeles Laker Ron Artest capped off a remarkable year this past December by raffling off his 2010 NBA Championship ring for $500,000 to benefit mental health; not an inconsequential amount but infinitesimally small compared to the priceless amount of mental health awareness it created. 

Artest's efforts, in turn, reminded me of another Laker forward who was instrumental in changing the stigma attached to another illness. The year was 1991, the star was Magic Johnson, and the disease was AIDS. In 1991, the public view of AIDS was of an illness confined to homosexuals and intravenous drug users, the just desserts of risky behaviour, with some fundamentalist Christians going so far as to say it was God's punishment for those behaviours. But when the very talented and charismatic Johnson announced he had AIDS, it was a turning point of sorts for the public's perception. In the years since Johnson has worked tirelessly to battle the stigma against AIDS and build public and political support for research and education. And through his and the combined efforts of many other celebrities, the public perception of AIDS and its victims has changed dramatically.

Now in 2011, we have sports stars like Brandon Marshall and Ron Artest speaking out to help strip away the unwarranted shame associated with mental illness. Joined by such members of Hollywood's elite as Catherine Zeta-Jones and famous family members like Glen Close, it's just possible that a groundswell of lasting support for mental health could slowly be forming. And therein lies my cautious hope.

Cautious, because while there may be parallels in the stigma associated with the two, mental illness is not AIDS. While AIDS was officially recognized by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 1981, mental illness has been with society since recorded history began and at various times ascribed to sorcery, witchcraft, and demonic possession. And even as the Western world opted for the so-called "moral treatment" in the 19th century of institutionalizing those with mental illness in asylums, the asylums quickly became overcrowded warehouses of neglected humanity until there was nothing moral about them.

While people’s reactions to AIDS have at times involved violations of civil rights, these pale in comparison with the civil and human rights issues that have and continue to confront those with mental illness. In Nazi Germany, the institutionalized mentally ill were among the first to be euthanized and mentally ill individuals were subjected to sterilization. Here in my own state, we still see repercussions of the sterilization programs that continued into the 1970s. Individuals with mental illness have been subjected to lobotomies and other extreme medical procedures against their will and far too often jailed for lack of treatment. There are still insurance disparities, job discrimination, and a host of other ways in which those with mental illness are treated as less than equal. And though institutionalization is sometimes necessary, what other illness can result in a person being committed and essentially stripped of all civil rights?

It's all enough to make you feel hopeless if you let it. But when you can't find hope, you have to look harder, because so often hope is all we have. And as long as one person, whether a “somebody” or a “nobody,” has dares to speak out, hope is still alive waiting for you to find it.






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