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Originally published Wednesday, February 4, 2015 at 4:55 PM

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Mental illness is not a fad

An emerging narrative seems to question the very idea of mental illness, writes syndicated columnist Leonard Pitts Jr.


Syndicated columnist

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He had his first major breakdown when he was 26.

A man who had been known for his sunny, outgoing temperament became suddenly sullen, silent and withdrawn. He spoke openly of suicide. It got so bad that a couple took him into their home to ensure he did not hurt himself.

His second breakdown was a few years later. He could not get out of bed. He lost weight and became emaciated. Again, he talked about killing himself. One friend confiscated all his razors.

“I am now the most miserable man living,” the depressed man wrote. “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on earth.”

Luckily for him, Abraham Lincoln did not write those words to Tom Sullivan. Sullivan, a Fox News Radio host, hasn’t much patience for claims of mental disability. At least, not to judge from his dismissal last week of a caller who told him she has bipolar disorder.

Bipolar disorder, Sullivan retorted, is “the latest fad. ... Last time I checked, we all have good days and we all have bad. And I don’t consider that an illness and I don’t consider it a disability.” The affliction, added Sullivan, is “something made up by the mental health business” in order to soak their patients.

If you are tempted to buy into those ignorant natterings, please be advised: Bipolar disorder, once known as manic depression, is one of the oldest diagnoses in psychiatry. It was first described in 1854 by French doctors Jules Baillarger and Jean-Pierre Falret. Both described it as an affliction characterized by moods that cycled wildly between mountain highs and oceanic lows.

But our concern here is not just Sullivan’s dismissal of one woman’s mental illness but, rather, an emerging narrative that seems to question the very idea of mental illness. That was the subtext of U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s claim last month that many people are “gaming” disability programs, though they suffer nothing more incapacitating than anxiety. Then there’s one Neil Munro, a so-called reporter for a right-wing website, who in 2013 accused doctors of inventing new mental illnesses for profit. He claimed that we have pathologized “stress” and “sadness,” made diseases out of ordinary moods that need no treatment more exotic than good old American “stoicism,” “hard work” and “personal initiative.”

The anti-science Know-Nothingism of the political right has seldom seemed more dangerous. In the wake of the Virginia Tech, Columbine, Navy Yard, Binghamton, Tucson and Aurora massacres, it is grotesque to deny the reality of mental illness or stigmatize those who seek help as somehow lacking in stoicism. And it is staggering that, according to USA Today, as states impose drastic cuts on mental-health services, 40 percent of those with severe mental illness receive no treatment. So, by what logic do these people discourage those who need help from getting it?

Even Lincoln knew he needed treatment — and sought it. Granted, the options available to his doctor — bleeding, quinine, purgatives, black pepper drinks — would not have done much good. But the point is, the future president felt it no reflection on his character to seek help.

“If I be in pain,” wrote Lincoln, who would suffer depression — what Munro trivializes as “sadness” — most of his life, “I wish to let you know it and to ask your sympathy and assistance ...” Yet so modern and enlightened are we, 150 years later, that some of us deny not only sympathy and assistance but even illness itself. Suck it up, the radio host tells the woman with bipolar disorder.

Now that’s insane.

© , The Miami Herald

Leonard Pitts Jr.'s column appears regularly on editorial pages of The Times. Email: lpitts@miamiherald.com



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