CHOICES: #8 - Functionality and Functionality

Robin Cunningham Health Guide

    In previous blogs in the Choices Series, I've suggested that there are three milestones in the Journey of Recovery from schizophrenia: Functionality, Wellness, and Fulfillment. I've also suggested that the starting point for this journey is Acceptance of the fact that we have a serious brain disorder. We've also addressed the fact that evaluating an individual's level of functionality has to be determined on a person-by-person basis and in relation to the person's capacity for functionality. From our prospective as people suffering from schizophrenia, grading can only be done fairly on the curve. One size does not fit all.

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    Most of the work-a-day world, however, does not grade on the curve. Our economic system most certainly, and our political system perhaps to a lesser degree, cut very little slack for anyone, especially among their leaders. In both for-profit and non-profit organizations, the emphasis is on getting "results," and very often over the short term. Those in business in particular may get paid the big bucks, but they live in constant fear, fear that someone will sabotage them or that they will fall short of expectations (e.g., earnings drop by $0.50, instead of increasing by $1.00 per share).


    And now we're getting down to the source of much of our difficulties in and with society, especially with respect to getting and keeping a job, but also in social interactions as well. We find ourselves in a quandary; we and society define functionality very differently and we are in the minority. Only 1% of our populace has schizophrenia, and if you throw in all mental illnesses, we still only 20% of the total population. In other words, we simply are NOT the 800 lb. Gorilla in the room, which can leave us at the mercy of others.


    How can our idea of functionality and that of society's be reconciled? Reconciliation will only come if one or both of two events occur. The first is that a cure is found and we all suddenly cease to have schizophrenia, like recovering from the mumps; it goes away never to return. This may be possible over the long term, but I don't expect it to occur in my lifetime.


    The other alternative is that society will radically alter its definition of functionality, bringing it more into conformance with our own. Who knows when _____ will freeze over?


    Actually, there is a third alternative. We and society could arrive at a compromise. Remember, though, that all of us in this country with a mental illness of any kind still represent only 20% of the total population. We're not in a strong bargaining position.


    The mental health advocacy movement has been trying for years to get our elected officials to do something to help us fix our badly broken systems of delivering mental healthcare services. And in all fairness, a fair amount of blatant discrimination and some very important changes in the laws of the land have been addressed as a consequence of our lobbying efforts. NAMI, The Treatment Advocacy Center and the many consumer organizations have accomplished a lot in this manner at the federal, state and local levels. They have lobbied by personal contact, testifying at legislative committee meetings and through letter campaigns in response to specific issues.


    We most certainly need to continue these efforts. I believe many elected officials sincerely want to help us, but they can only do so much. Without anywhere near enough money available to meet the requests and demands of all the special interest groups, it's virtually impossible for our representatives to give us all the money needed to overhaul our entire mental healthcare systems.


    So what is the solution?


    I don't believe we'll ever get enough money to completely revamp our mental healthcare system until one seminal event occurs. Until, at the very least, a majority of the voting public stand up and demand solutions from our elected officials, we will remain just another special interest group.

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    This means to succeed in our effort, we have to get the general public involved. But how do we do that?


    If we are 20% of the population, almost everyone in our society must have a family member or a friend that is ill. Even so, they don't seem realize that mental illness in our society is epidemic. And the general public knows almost nothing about mental illness except for the very highly distorted images on which the entertainment industry seems to feed. So, one viable but ambitious approach is to educate the general public about the true nature of mental illness.


    But how can any of us, except for professional teachers, do this? We are not all educators. Or are we?


    We certainly provide our children with an "education" by our own words and deeds. And as friends and neighbors we certainly learn from each other.


    People that are ignorant of the true nature of mental illness in most cases have just never been introduced to the truth. So, wherever you may be, if the opportunity presents itself, tell your neighbors and friends about your experience with mental illness. Make it clear that we are regular people with a health problem very much like all the others. Most often they will accept what you say at face value. They will look at you and say "I never realized." Then they will start asking you questions about what it is like.


    I'm not suggesting that we launch an all out assault and start stopping strangers on the street to tell them about our experience or cornering people at work. I'm talking about speaking out forthrightly about our personal experiences when the subject comes up, or responding diplomatically when someone makes a discriminatory remark.


    When you think about it, if we are 20% of the population and we all do this, we each, on average, only have to reach five other people. That's certainly a manageable number.

    So, speak out! We can persuade the general public to stand up with us and demand a solution. After all, they all have a family member or friend that suffers from mental illness. They do in fact have us. Let's tell them the truth and get this done. Until we do, we are going to have to live with a double standard when it comes to functionality, a standard that stacks the deck against us.


    Next week I will tell and show you how, with the help of a good psychiatrist and therapist, and the assistance of my parents, I learned over many years to maintain my standards of functionality and still meet society's standards sufficiently to prosper.


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    Make a brief comment. Give us your reaction, good or bad. Enter your own SharePost. Your response can be of any length, short, long, whatever, and you can do this anonymously if this makes you more comfortable. But whatever you do, join in our dialogue. We need your insight, your point of view. Remember, you can speak with experiential authority.



    Please remember, this writing reflects my own experience and opinions. If you, or a loved one, are experiencing the symptoms of schizophrenia, or any other mental illness, you should seek professional assistance.


Published On: November 12, 2007