Natalie Sanusi hopes that one day mental illness will have the same acceptance as diabetes, asthma and other physical conditions.
When depression and anxiety struck Sanusi in her 30s, she pushed on, going to work and hiding her symptoms. Her condition finally devolved to the point where she thought about killing herself just to stop the despair.
When the Pendleton woman eventually shared her situation with others, they often made well-meaning, but inappropriate, comments. Some directed her to try harder or have more faith in God.
Sanusi read between the lines.
“They were saying you should be able to pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” she said. “Your disease is your fault.”
Even in her blackest moments, she balked at that. She realized her problem was largely chemical and did not stem from lack of character or self-discipline.
“You’d never say to a diabetic, ‘If you had willpower, you wouldn’t have diabetes,’” said Sanusi, 43. “You shouldn’t say these things to people with mental illness.”
Actress Glenn Close feels much the same as Sanusi, enough to start a website devoted to erasing the stigma of mental illness called bringchange2mind.com.
“Glenn’s sister, Jessie, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 47,” said executive director Pamela Harrington. “Her nephew was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder.”
In a Huffington Post website video on the website, Close talks about how her nephew lost most of his friends and her sister stayed quiet about her diagnosis, thinking other parents wouldn’t let their children come to her house to play with her children.
“The stigma that surrounds mental illness can be worse than the disease itself,” Close said.
The Academy Award-winning actress, famous for her role of a disturbed woman in “Fatal Attraction,” teamed with director Ron Howard to create a video to ease the stigma. The minute-long video, filmed in Grand Central Station, features people wearing white t-shirts bearing the name of their mental illnesses. Close walks alongside Jessie, clad in a white shirt that says “sister.” The camera pans, showing numerous white shirts dotting the cavernous space, illustrating that one in six adults have a mental illness (a quarter of us will be affected sometime in our lives) and most of the rest know someone who does.
Harrington said she believes mental illness will gradually be normalized. People once whispered about HIV and cancer, she said. Mental illness will also find acceptance.
“It’s a matter of time,” she said. “We’re at the tipping point.”
Kevin Campbell, director of Greater Oregon Behavioral Health, Inc., said shame keeps many people from seeking help in the early stages. Rather, many wait until symptoms ratchet up with a psychotic break or other dramatic downturns. Until then, “they’re all alone trying to deal with their challenges.”
“The earlier we get in front of it, the less damage it will do,” Campbell said.
Sanusi said she got the help she needed and has the support of her mother and close friends. The former teacher can no longer work but medication, exercise and therapy keep her symptoms at bay. She finds fulfillment through art and other avenues.
She urges others with mental illnesses to tell their stories.
“Mental illness has got to be normalized,” Sanusi said. “People need to see mental illness the way they see any other ailment.”
She suspects public perception is skewed by hearing about the most dramatic cases, such as shootings in Newtown, Conn., and Aurora, Colo.
“There’s this idea that the mentally ill are all ranting on a street corner somewhere,” Sanusi said. “That’s not the case.”