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Understanding Mental Illness

What inspired you to be so open about your mental health journey?

David Harbour: I wanted folks to know that although I am living my dreams now, this is not the way it’s always been. I thought there might be a mother of a child recently diagnosed with a mental illness out there who worried that her child would be an outcast. I wanted to speak to her and to the millions that know and love folks who are suffering.

My mental health disorder is something I live with, but it does not define me. However, if it defines you I can assure you that there is a way to have a tremendously fulfilling life. I’m living proof that you can be anything you want to be. There were times when I thought I’d never get to do what I wanted to do in this world or that I’d never get off the couch, frankly, and I want people to know that it does get better.

Do you recall the moment when you first decided to seek professional help?

DH: I have been in therapy since I got sober in 1999. When I quit drinking, it forced me to confront a lot of demons that rose to the surface. I was very poor but still was able to work once a week with a CSW who put me on a sliding scale.

Only recently have I started intense psychotherapy, and it has made a world of difference in my treatment.  

What advice do you have for someone recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder who is just starting their treatment?

DH: There has been a great resurgence in the idea that psychotherapy, along with responsible medication, is key to remission. I have not had a manic flare-up since I started psychoanalysis with a good therapist. Medication alone is only half the battle. There is not a cure-all formula, there is only hard individual work. If you can’t afford therapy, find groups that don’t charge or don’t charge much. You will improve.  

Can you explain what it feels like when you’re going through a manic episode?

DH: Thought becomes disordered and chaotic. Things that have no meaning became meaningful. Names, numbers and colors acquire a twisted symbolism. There is a fundamental narcissism at the bottom of it all that makes me think I am the center of all things, for good or for ill. My manic episodes are, of course, a manifestation of my own particular psychopathy. They all share those traits, but each episode has been linked to certain fixations I had at the time.

Why do you think there is still so much stigma surrounding discussions about mental health and treatment?

DH: When you lose your mind, fall into a depression or fire up with a mania, you behave differently than you normally would. That means people judge your behavior, and therefore judge you. Hence, the stigma arises.

The new model of understanding that mental health disorders are diseases, and treating people without stigma is beautiful and liberating. I’m touched and grateful that we are beginning to have the conversation without stigma.

If someone seeks treatment for psychological issues, I think it’s the bravest thing you can do. It’ll also make you a far more interesting person. The only life worth living is the self-examined one.

We’re seeing more and more people speaking out about mental illness. If there is someone reading this that maybe doesn’t entirely understand mental illness and isn’t personally affected, what would you want them to know about mental health?

DH: I don’t know that there are people that exist that aren’t affected by mental illness. Even if it’s undiagnosed, I guarantee that you know someone who is struggling with mental illness.

I have a difficult time with the diagnosis term “mental illness,” and I’d like people to know that that particular moniker does not define us. I prefer “neuro-atypical,” a phrase which is often used in the autism community. However, I’m glad the diagnosis exists so that you know that mental illness isn’t the fault of the person that has it.  

The most important thing I’d like you to know is that there is a common misconception in our society. Mentally ill people are not violent. If someone suffers, they need your help, not your distrust or fear. Most of the mentally ill people I know are incredible artists and thinkers. They are people that view the world in a unique way, who exhibit a special sensitivity and a special thoughtfulness about life and people and the communities they serve. If someone you love suffers difficulties with their mental health, remind them of how special they are in the world and how special they are to you. That type of generosity can make them feel like they can go into the world and create wonderful things, inspire others and make it a more beautiful place for all of us to inhabit.

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