And then, Silence.

Today I spent my morning getting to know one of our writers, the lovely Breyonne Blackthorne. We spent the next couple hours talking about the website, and our respective experiences with being queer and having mental health issues. We had a perfect storm brewing full of great ideas for articles to write for! Afterward, we both had to leave so we caught the next bus together, and then as soon as we boarded the bus, the most amazing thing happened – our bubbly, excited conversation which was full of life – just stopped. One moment, lots of chatter, and then, silence.

Later on, I almost had to laugh, because we both understood what happened. We were discussing mental illness, specifically, our own mental illnesses, and neither of us wanted others to have others hear. Not because we didn’t want people to know, but because we didn’t want to scare people away. It’s sad that we can talk about issues like cancer and diabetes and broken ankles, and these conversations will elicit sympathy from bystanders. But when we talk about issues such as bipolar disorder or psychosis or suicidal thoughts, those same bystanders get nervous, don’t know what to say, or retreat into their own personal space. I find it funny because eight years ago, I had the same issue with talking in public about being queer, and being transgender. Today, I can talk about them all the time, but talking about mental illness scares me a lot.

The media doesn’t help with this at all. Almost every time I see mental illness mentioned in the mainstream news, it’s about someone who became violent, presumptively due to their illness. Most notably, this was brought to the world’s attention with Jared Lee Loughner’s shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, who at the time was suspected of suffering from an undisclosed mental illness. I don’t know about you, but if this was all I ever heard about mental illness, I would be afraid to be around somebody with mental illness too!

The reality is that statistically speaking, violence among people with mental illness is rare. Rarer even than violence among the general population. In fact, people who have mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than to be perpetrators. It has been my experience that some of the most compassionate people I know have mental illness. There’s something about this experience that humbles us. I know that I now have a much greater understanding of others’ experiences with mental illness now that I have experienced living with bipolar disorder myself. I’m still new to this diagnosis, and I still have my fears about how this will affect my life. But I am no longer afraid of people who have mental illness, because I’ve realized that we are just like everyone else: we have our faults, and we try our best every day to be good people and treat others kindly. Today, some of my closest friends are sufferers of mental illness, from depression to OCD to schizophrenia.

To bring us back to the conversation I had this morning, I think I am going to make a commitment to talk more in public about my mental illness. Don’t get me wrong, I have my fears. I worry that a business contact might overhear, or it may reach certain people I don’t wish to know about my bipolar disorder. But to me, that’s a small price to pay to start the conversation we all need to have about mental illness. I hope in time more people will join me, so that we can discuss mental illness like we discuss cancer, diabetes or a broken ankle.

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