David Stone
What does mental illness look like?
What does mental illness look like?

In my twenties, overturning everything I thought I knew about life by reading Kurt Vonnegut's novels, I heard that No More Blue Mondays, the subtitle for Breakfast of Champions, was about his taking medications for chronic depression, and I cringed. My hero had a mental illness? Now, we know that what's been hidden so long is that it's about as common and every day as catching the flu, and a new program Make It OK is out to change our minds .

A hangover from superstitions we should've shaken a long time ago, the stigma against mental illness evolved from ancient ideas about why it existed at all. It was the work of the devil, evil spirits and other mystical forces.

Now, we know that the sicknesses that hit Kurt Vonnegut as well as commoners like you and me, according to MedicineNet.com, are caused by "a combination of genetic, biological, psychological, and environmental factors -- not personal weakness or a character defect -- and recovery from a mental illness is not simply a matter of will and self-discipline."

It happens. So do colds, flu and broken bones, but without the miserable, antiquated stigma mental illnesses get tagged with.

In my novel Lucky To Have Her, my main character is suddenly stricken with depression. It troubles him for several years. The problem is, a man of his times in the 1970s, he keeps his illness secret, and it goes untreated, making its effect on him and his family much worse than it needed to be. 

Peter wrestled with his symptoms, never really knowing what was wrong with him. But the fact is that nothing was "wrong." He was just sick.

According to NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, "Mental illnesses are common in the United States," with 43.4 million adults, that's 17.9% of us, suffering one form or another in 2015, the most recent year in which full survey data is available.

Depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are the most common varieties, and as with once taboo topics like cancer and even pregnancy, we've started talking about them as things that can and do affect all of us, as part of life.

Watch an episode of I Love Lucy from the 1950s, Lucy Ricardo goes through months in front of cameras before giving birth without ever being allowed to mention that forbidden word, "pregnant." In those days and for years to come, in movies and on TV, you might be "with child" or "expecting," but never pregnant.

And the taboo that had cancer muted publicly as a "long illness" finally took the stigma away from sicknesses worsened by irrational fear and superstition.

So, why not make mental illness next in line for stigma removal? 

Which of us would continue masking mental illness as something wrong if we knew that it might made sick people sicker, increasing their suffering while decreasing the likelihood of their seeking help?

At Make It OK.org, their goal is just what it says. Banish forever the unkind stigma attached to this disease, just as we have with cancer. Make it better by "taking a stand against the mental illness stigma."

Do your neighbor a favor. Pledge to Make It OK by...

 Sign the pledge at Make It OK.org.