DEAR ABBY: I am the director of a rehabilitation program for the chronically mentally ill. From time to time, I notice that you print letters that deal with stereotypes and negative attitudes society often holds toward certain groups. I wonder if you might print a similar letter on behalf of people who have a mental illness. One of the foremost issues facing this group is the negative prejudice that society holds against them.
I asked our group of patients to provide suggestions on how to treat a person who has a mental illness. Some of their ideas:
1. Don't be afraid of us. Despite what you see on TV and in the movies, studies have shown that the mentally ill population does not have a greater propensity toward violence than anyone else.
2. Please avoid negative stereotypical words such as "psycho," "nuts," "schizo," "loonies," etc. The emotional pain these dehumanizing words inflict upon us hurts worse than our illness does.
3. Give us a job opportunity. Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill, both of whom experienced mental illness, held two of the most important jobs in history. Many of us are intelligent and long for the chance to be productive members of society.
4. Please don't tell us that if we just tried harder we could "snap out of it." This insults our intelligence and implies that we are lazy. There is nothing fun or positive about having a mental illness and none of us choose to have it.
5. Be patient when you notice we are having a difficult time. It is OK to ask us if we need help.
6. Don't ask if we have taken our medication when we are angry, sad or irritable. These questions make us feel like we don't have the right to experience normal human emotions without being viewed as having an "episode."
7. Treat us like you would treat anyone else. We have a need for acceptance, just as you do. Most of us lead quite normal lives complete with families, children, employment and financial responsibilities.
Abby, with the help of recent medications and psychotherapy interventions, the treatment of mental illness has made tremendous strides in the last 10 years. Unfortunately, the prejudice against this group remains one of the most painful aspects of the disease. -- MIKE ASHWORTH, Ph.D., ARLINGTON, TEXAS
DEAR DR. ASHWORTH: You have written a very important letter. There is a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about mental illness. Some mental illnesses can be managed effectively with therapy and medication. Others can be cured entirely. People coping with mental illness have enough complicated challenges to overcome without having to deal with the irrational fears of the supposedly "normal."
Let's face it -- there are few among us who don't have a few "kinks" here or there.