It’s no secret that mental illness is surrounded by a negative stigma. Mental illness is seen as a burden, as something that takes away from a person. And I’m sure most individuals with a mental illness would agree that it is not the best part of them but still a part of who they are. I myself have ADD and would not consider myself “me” without it. I have friends with anxiety and depression who would also agree. Society does not see it that way, instead looking at those with mental illnesses as a problem or at least, not normal. Here is where I say that all humans have differences and that difference is in fact the norm. Mental illness affects one in five Americans. However, society shuns them, says they “suffer” from a “disorder.” While they do suffer and illnesses are an imbalance of hormones, maybe mental illness adds something to society. Maybe mental illness adds to a person as it negatively affects them. And maybe the same line of thinking can be applied to society.
To examine this idea, I looked to history and then to friends and myself. As I looked at historical examples of impactful people who had mental illnesses I found the most famous: Beethoven, Van Gogh, Ernest Hemmingway, Kurt Cobain. But as I searched further others surprised me: Abraham Lincoln, Charles Darwin, Ricky Williams. Each suffered from depression and anxiety, severe panic disorder and social anxiety disorder respectively. I had never known about these people’s experience with mental illness. The list goes on to include Michael Phelps, ADHD; Alexander Graham Bell, dyslexia; Barbra Streisand, social phobia; Cole Porter, OCD and paranoid delusions. These people all suffered from mental illness in addition to achieving great things. I argue that their mental illnesses didn’t hinder them or make them less of a great person but rather created and encouraged them to do the great things they did. If Abraham Lincoln hadn’t had depression would he have been as sensitive to the plight and suffering of the slaves? If Cole Porter hadn’t had OCD would he have been as talented at combining notes into a beautifully innovative jazz song? If Michael Phelps didn’t have ADHD would he have been so hyperactively focused on swimming, eventually becoming the most decorated Olympian of all time?
Maybe while these illnesses cause suffering, they also add to the sufferer by creating a different way of looking at the world, at accomplishing tasks. Mental illnesses create a different sensitivity in a person, a different approach to the world and people. It affects how people think. Maybe this is exactly what the world needs sometimes, someone who can think in a new, innovative way no one had considered before, someone who can better express their emotions as they feel them in a deeper and different way.
In further examination, I considered my experience with mental illness. In this case, I will include ADD as a mental disorder, though it can also be categorized as a learning disorder. Until a few years ago, I saw my ADD more as a burden than as a part of me. Like it was something I suffered from, a chronic illness that separated me from my peers. That’s how it had always been framed to me. I took a medication to fix me, to make me see the world and work in the same way as the others. I then came to realize that while the medication helped ensure that I could do my schoolwork, I preferred myself off of my medication. My thinking was more free. My creativity flowed and my thoughts jumped from one thing to another and gave me revelations and ideas that I know wouldn’t have occurred to me on my meds. After I realized this, I started to appreciate my ADD in a new way. Yes, it made studying and concentrating harder as I had a million thoughts going through my head all at once, but on the plus side, I had a million thoughts going through my head all at once! My brain was capable of making connections where there were none and as such, I thought in a different way than my peers. I was better at remembering historical facts and Spanish words. My brain became my pneumonic device. In this way my former hindrance benefitted me.
However, ADD is not the most extreme or serious mental illness, which is why I would also like to use the example of my friend who suffers from anxiety. Anxiety is not easy to deal with and is a daily struggle for those suffering from it. My friend does not like new experiences and often works herself into a panic (sometimes physically hurting herself) when she deals with her anxiety. She is working on managing her anxiety. But she doesn’t view this as a burden. It has become a part of her, an aspect of her personality. And as such she is able to feel for the emotions of others better than anyone else I know. Whether it is a human or an animal, she cares for everyone and empathizes with their situation, knowing how they might be feeling before even they do. This may be just her sensitivity or it may be because her anxiety makes her consider every possible outcome in a situation and the reactions of every person within those possibilities. She deals with human emotions other than hers all the time within her mind, and therefore she is better at understanding them in the real world.
Aggregately it becomes clear that while mental illnesses make people suffer, they also create a different person. They benefit society by adding diversity when without it there would be conformity. There would be a world without progress, without innovation. They add to society by creating more sensitive people who think in a new way. They also sometimes benefit those with the illness, as that person is able to think in a new way or feel in a deeper way. If society addresses mental illness as less of a burden and more as a part of those who have them, then it may be easier for those people to deal with their illness. As soon as mental illness stops being an asterisk in the biographies of historical figures, we can come to understand that mental illness provides a different outlook and by looking at it negatively we create a normal, conformist world.