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August 18, 2014 at 6:20 AM

Busting the stigma of mental illness

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In the course of researching for the “What’s troubling mental-health care” editorial package published in Sunday’s Seattle Times, I heard again and again stories of people with mental health disorders living full, healthy lives. These stories rarely make it into the paper, as they are shoved aside by tragedies linked to mental illness.

Here are two stories, shared in order to give other people hope for recovery, and to tear at the stigma of mental illness:

Steve Murphy was working a construction job away from his native Seattle when he experienced his first signs of illness. He was helping build a coal processing plant in Kentucky, working with strangers, when he stopped sleeping or eating much. His speech became rapid and impulsive. Classic signs of mania, he now realizes.

Murphy ended up taking a flight back home, where he was met by a girlfriend, whom he credits with saving his life. She helped get him into a psychiatric hospital, where, he said, he was diagnosed correctly as having bipolar disorder. He hasn’t been hospitalized since. “I’m incredibly lucky, for so many reasons,” said Murphy, now 61.

That was the beginning of his recovery. He said he found the right medication within a few years, and began working in the restaurant industry, including Red Robin, Flakey Jakes and Schwartz Brothers. He never told coworkers about his diagnosis, fearing the consequences.

Since 1989, he’s run his own consulting firm, advising small businesses on finance and data processing. He’s also become a mental health advocate, serving on the board of the Seattle nonprofit Transitional Resources, and going through the “In Our Own Voice” training with the National Alliance on Mental Illness Greater Seattle chapter, which helps people share their recovery stories.

As part of that speakers’ bureau, Murphy regularly visits Harborview Medical Center’s psychiatric ward with a direct message:

“If you have mental illness, you can have a life.”

Murphy’s prescription for recovery is to maintain treatment, including medications, to maintain a solid work life, and to maintain strong relationships. On that front, he’s remarkably successful. The woman whom he met at the airport in 1977 became his wife. Steve and Chris Murphy have been married for 35 years.

Richard Martin, Jr., 62, diagnoses the problem of stigma with a physician’s perspective:

 The only way you deal with stigma is having people who’ve walked that path talking about it.

An Army doctor with a glittering academic record, Martin interned at Madigan Army Medical Center in 1976. But as he was working at a military hospital in Denver, Martin (no relation to the writer of this blog post) was infected with the HIV virus in an accidental needle stick, although he didn’t realize he contracted it until 1991.

Martin believes that he developed bipolar disorder as a symptom of the HIV infection, which became full blown AIDS. He continued in the medical profession for two decades, but the mental and physical symptoms of both illnesses made it difficult to thrive professionally. “I managed to work my way out of that profession. There was a large amount of prejudice with HIV, but I would imagine it was mostly my behavior,” said Martin, who retired from medicine in 1999.

Martin, however, describes himself as “a resurrection story.” Advances in the treatment of AIDS put Martin into remission since 2006, and his psychiatric symptoms subsided. He, too, joined NAMI’s “In Our Own Voice” speaker’s bureau, presenting at Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University and Seattle Central Community College. He is now finishing a master’s degree in pastoral therapy at Seattle U.

Martin compares the current stigma of mental illness to breast cancer, which led to the emergence of the “pink ribbon culture.”

“Women used to die for fear of exposing themselves to their doctor,” he says. “I think we have to get there with mental illness.”

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Comments | Topics: bipolar disorder, mental health, mental illness

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