Peter Toth: If you are afflicted with mental illness, don’t give up hope on living a full life

‘And why can’t you work full-time? You don’t look disabled to me. Aren’t people like you scamming welfare and disability?”

If I had a dollar for every time I encountered the inherent misunderstanding in such a comment, the surplus funds could potentially solve the tragedies engendered by such thinking.

“I have Parkinson’s disease.”

I desperately yearn for this statement’s veracity, for “Parkinson’s” would stand as a legitimate and respectable response to the inquiry, releasing me from the need for further justification.

Instead, however, scruples trump ego and I answer, somewhat awkwardly: “I have a mental illness — schizophrenia.”

I find it peculiar how, almost always, the former response is automatically respected as legitimate, while the latter doomed to be criticized as an unacceptable excuse. Especially knowing that Parkinson’s and schizophrenia are very similar neurological ailments differentiated only by one causative triviality: levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine in the sufferer’s brain. Parkinson’s, in other words, develops due to a dopamine deficiency; schizophrenia, from a dopamine excess. Doesn’t bias with regards to a person’s dopamine levels starkly resemble discrimination based on the colour of another’s skin?

Why, despite irrefutable evidence of their biochemical cause, are mental illnesses so frequently misunderstood?

A person with no direct experience of physical pain (a very rare case indeed!) could never truly empathize with the plight a chronic arthritis sufferer. In the same manner, if you have always been blessed with healthy mental functioning, you may be limited in your ability to visualize the vast spectrum of possible mental states: being confident and in control — punctuated, of course, with realistic levels of humane adversity — would define your extent of conceivable states.

You’d likely perceive adversity itself as a fleeting nuisance capable of being overcome with sufficient mettle or patience; in hindsight, the adversity will become a mere stepping stone or a resilience-consolidating experience. It certainly wouldn’t flood you with sorrow and torment so severe as to disrupt your daily functioning, cause you to attempt suicide, and result in a lengthy psych ward visit.

Personally, I would infinitely prefer the kind of adversity that can be overcome in positive ways, without the psych ward visit. Unfortunately, for some individuals, complete recovery is not chemically feasible even with today’s cutting edge treatments and medications.

As solid as the evidence is for a biochemical basis of mental illness, no sufferer should ever use their “mental illness” as an excuse to opt out of life’s challenges and choose a meaningless, wasteful existence of sloth. Even an illness as devastating as schizophrenia shouldn’t deter a sufferer from striving for achievable goals, as well as taking advantage of the many ways to maximize their mental functioning.

It is the continuous pursuit of wellness that sets apart those who deserve to collect disability benefits from those who may be “scamming the system,” and although I believe the well-intentioned group constitutes the vast majority of disability recipients, the notoriety of the minority casts a stigma and defiles the public image for us all.

So if you are afflicted with a mental illness, don’t give up hope and don’t stop searching for ways to maximize your functioning. Eat healthy, talk to your doctor about supplements, exercise regularly, keep in touch with friends and family, attend church, adopt an animal, travel, make love, take up a new hobby,
volunteer … there are unlimited ways you can help yourself enjoy life to the fullest and become a productive human being.

And if you aren’t afflicted with a mental illness, educate yourself with a basic psychology course — learning new concepts and meeting new people will certainly open your mind and heart to the truth.

I concede to the possibility of never being able to switch to full-time work. I even acknowledge the slim chance my schizophrenia will deteriorate and I may require hospitalization. But these threats will never daunt me from continuing to strive, to persevere, to conquer the disorder, and to fiercely face life’s challenges.

Future research could possibly uncover a cure for schizophrenia, and thus, enduring its torturous symptoms may perhaps become an antiquated obligation. Until then, I feverishly plead for the public’s understanding and acceptance of the condition; in other words, an end to the stigma.

Such an achievement I shall hail as the crossing of the final great frontier by the human heart.

Peter Toth, Port Coquitlam

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