Mental illness is no laughing matter

Op-ed: There was nothing funny about the man in the hedgehog suit.

Last Friday, when a 25-year-old man dressed in a hedgehog costume terrorized Fox 45 and threatened to set off a candy bar "bomb" if the station didn't play the video on his flash drive, it didn't take long for the social-media machine to go into full swing. "In Baltimore, even our terrorists are kinda awesome," read one post. "Baltimore: Let's Get Weird," professed another. "Truly a Trump supporter," read another. All day long, the one-upmanship continued.

I don't know if this man who was ranting about the end of the world has a mental illness, but his father told news media that his son had struggled with mental illness in the past. I spent the better part of a day pointing out online that such situations may be due to some kind of psychosis; it didn't take long for the barbs to turn toward me. One heckler, a local comedian, accused me of having no sense of humor. Note to Facebook friend: Sorry to rain on your virtual standup routine, but even a platypus costume wouldn't have given me the giggles.

And here's why: Mental illness is not even mildly amusing. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 8 million people die each year from it. Anyone who thinks it's a laughing matter is out of touch. The man in the costume being made fun of was eventually shot by police and later charged with arson and reckless endangerment. Maybe it was a slow news day out there in Social Media Land, but anyone who took part in it is no better than a schoolyard bully. Even as the world supposedly becomes a more accepting place, this is still an acceptable form of prejudice.

But anyone can become inflicted. Contrary to what many believe, you can't "catch" mental illness from the environment, and it doesn't come from bad parenting. It is, in fact, highly genetic. And it often comes as a surprise. Given that mood and thought disorders such as bipolar illness and schizophrenia typically don't surface until late into the teen years, the person you love can become afflicted — sometimes seemingly overnight — even if they once were an honor-roll student or varsity athlete. (See Austin Deeds, who attacked his father, a Virginia state senator, before killing himself in 2013.) "Losing your mind" isn't a technical term, but it does describe what can happen. When you suffer from a brain disorder, you don't think clearly; that's part of the definition of the disease.

Every English teacher I've ever had was quick to correct students on the difference between saying, "I'm angry" and "I'm mad." As someone who has always been intimate with mental illness, I've never had trouble remembering that distinction.

I don't laugh when my mother recalls that her bipolar father was never the same after shock therapy treatments. I didn't laugh when numerous members of my extended family pondered whether the world would be better off without them. I didn't laugh when a loved one walked on live train tracks or was so paralyzed by panic and depression that even getting out of bed was an impossible feat. I didn't laugh when he shared that he had once eaten insects.

In the aftermath of this event, and others like it, though the police did their best, there was the question of motive, which drives me nuts — and by the way, that's not a technical term for one of the most awful of medical maladies. As mental illness has moved from the sanitariums to the streets, disturbing events have become a typical.

How do we handle it? We shoot.

According to recent data compiled by The Washington Post, of nearly 1,000 people shot and killed by police officers in the U.S. in 2015, 25 percent showed signs of mental illness. And about 14 percent of the population in American jails and prisons have a serious mental illness, which means that cops and prisons are forced to fill the void left by our health care system.

Madness is mercurial. And despite love and therapy and doctors, you live with the reality that once your loved one loses touch, anything — even walking into a station in an animal-themed onesie — can happen.

When you're sick, you head to the hospital. But when your brain is broken, you might head to Fox News — and then possibly prison.

We are better than this Baltimore. The millions of Americans with mental illness deserve our compassion and understanding, rather than our ridicule.

Jane Marion is the food and travel editor at Baltimore magazine; her email is janefmarion@gmail.com.

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