By Daniel J. Vance MS, LPCC
In the U.S., the month of May is (or was, depending on when your newspaper publishes this column) “Mental Health Awareness Month.” Even after all these years of awareness having been raised since the first awareness month in 1949, many Americans still don't regard a disabling mental health disorder as a “real” disability. It's time to end this outdated way of thinking.
According to a U.S. Department of Labor website, the federal government has many different definitions for “disability.” For Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) purposes, the government defines disability as a person who “has a physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, has a record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment.” Regarding Social Security disability benefits, the federal government has determined that a potential recipient “must have a severe disability (or combination of disabilities) that has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 months or result in death, and which prevents working at a 'substantial gainful activity' level.”
Both these and most other definitions regarding disability make room for a person (but not every person) who has a mental health diagnosis, especially ones like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, severe and recurrent major depressive disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder.
I'm a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor (i.e., a mental health professional). Out in public, I sometimes hear people with disabling mental health diagnoses being referred to as nut jobs, wackos or as having screws loose. I also occasionally see people using an index finger to make circles around an ear while referring to an individual they deem “crazy.”
I could be wrong here, but I think a good many Americans believe people with a disabling mental issue somehow have complete control over their mental state and could quickly get over it if they would only listen to the logic friends suggested. I can't think of anything more ridiculous. Improvement can occur, but often only in baby steps and seldom completely.
As a therapist, I have yet to meet a client who just loves having a disabling mental illness. Nearly all hate the battle, the daily struggles, the unpleasant fallout. They dream of having a “normal” life, including being able to work or be married. If personally able to conquer their inner struggles today, every single one of them would do it. Without question.
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