Mental Illness: One of the Unseen Disabilities

Recently my housemate was on crutches after knee surgery. She had a temporary but clear disability, one that all the world could see. I live with major mental illness, a disability that has – at least for now – ended my working career. My disability is unseen but sometimes crippling. I’ve endured a number of hospitalizations and get through my days only because of serious psychiatric medications.

Here’s a useful definition I got off the web: “A mental illness is a medical condition that impacts a person’s thoughts or mood and may affect the ability to function. Each person with such an illness will have a different experience, even people with the same diagnosis.”

Let’s consider two major mental illnesses, namely bipolar disorder (once called manic
depression) and schizophrenia. Bipolar disorder affects at least 3% of Americans and schizophrenia affects about 1% of the population – so 1 in 25 of us have one of these two diagnoses. That’s a proportion that’s nothing to sneeze at. You can also be “in between” bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, having elements of both conditions. That’s my situation. A doctor would say I’m on the schizophrenic spectrum, or more specifically that I have schizoaffective disorder.
Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia do not have a single cause. They do have a genetic link, and therefore may run in families, but they are not caused simply by genes the way eye-color is. Just for example, there are cases of identical twins where one develops schizophrenia and the other does not – so genes are not the only cause of these illnesses although genetics seem to make a person susceptible.