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Disability Action Center NW

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.

People who have schizophrenia and bipolar disorder live much shorter lives than does the general population. On average, people with these diagnoses live roughly 25 years less than do other people in the U.S. I like to say that means I don’t need to save for retirement (that’s an example of psychiatric ward humor for you).

Some of this difference in longevity is due to suicides, but most of it appears to be caused largely by preventable physical conditions like cardiovascular issues and diabetes. (Note: some psychiatric medications tend to cause metabolic syndrome and diabetes! So patients are between a rock and a hard place. Right now my weight is good and I exercise seven days a week to try to stay healthy, but I could end up with Type 2 diabetes nonetheless.)

Sometimes people in the general population are afraid of the mentally ill, particularly folks suffering from schizophrenia. But statistics indicate schizophrenics are no more likely to be violent than what I call “the normal people,” meaning those without major mental illness. And the mentally ill are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than they are to be perpetrators.

Mental illness can be a heavy burden to bear. Please keep in mind that it’s an important – though often invisible – disability. From where I stand, disabilities we can’t see require the same respect as my housemate’s crutches. If we hold doors open for people on crutches, so should we show courtesy for people with invisible disabilities. It just requires more awareness and communication.