The Common Good

What Angelina Jolie’s Mastectomy Teaches Us About the Stigma of Mental Illness

On Tuesday, Angelina Jolie became the face of preventative mastectomy. In a beautifully worded New York Times op-ed, the actress said she opted for a double mastectomy after learning she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer, adding, “On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”

Angelina Jolie / Catherine Zeta-Jones, Shutterstock.com
Angelina Jolie / Catherine Zeta-Jones, Shutterstock.com

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In the hours following the publication of Jolie’s story, others came forward with their own stories, and the media coverage since has been non-stop. However, when a similarly famous actress, Catherine Zeta Jones, came forward with her diagnosis of bipolar II disorder, it made only a news ripple compared to the crashing wave of coverage Jolie’s disclosure has received. Don’t get me wrong — Jolie’s announcement is hugely significant and part of a much-needed conversation. But mental illness should be afforded the same level of discourse. Perhaps talking about mental illness isn’t as fascinating as talking about an actress’s decision about her breasts, but talk about it we must — and unfortunately not even a courageous disclosure made by a beautiful and famous actress like Catherine Zeta Jones is enough to get that conversation started.

Someone in your family suffers from a mental illness. Someone in your congregation does as well. Someone among your neighbors, your friends, your co-workers. Maybe even your pastor. Since 26 percent of the population is plagued by mental illness, one would be hard pressed to convincingly claim to know no one who is mentally ill. Think about all the people you know, and then assume that 1 out of every 4 of those people has a mental illness. 

But so far, despite the fact that mental illness is something that can and does affect anyone from any walk of life, any faith, and any socioeconomic status, it seems that the loudest voices among us have continued perpetuating stereotypes and myths. When we hear the media and the politicians and the pundits talk about creating a database of the mentally ill for public safety reasons, a culture of deranged boogeymen is created. Talking in broad strokes about “mental illness” fails to account for the spectrum of illnesses that are included under that term — including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, among others. Even at the high end of the spectrum — the part the National Alliance of Mental Illness says includes major depression, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, PTSD, and borderline personality disorder — those who fall in these categories can have high-functioning, “normal” lives, with proper treatment. 

But the operative words there are “proper treatment.” When left untreated, mental illness can and does deteriorate into homelessness, drug addiction, suicide, violence, and self-harm, among other things. To avoid this deterioration, those who suffer must feel comfortable reaching out for treatment, and that treatment must be accessible, affordable, and widespread. But for these things to become the norm and not the exception, there must be a grand-scale social movement to eradicate the culture of the boogeyman, and that movement will need a leader.

For example, back in the 80s, AIDS was the boogeyman. AIDS was unfortunately cast as something homosexual men and drug addicts got as “punishment” for their actions. The perception was that it was a dirty word and a dirty thing and only dirty people got it. And then an amazing thing happened: a young boy named Ryan White came forward and said, “I have HIV/AIDS.” And he wasn’t gay. Or an addict. Or anything anyone could hurl an accusatory stone at. He was instead a hemophiliac who got a bad blood transfusion. 

I will never forget seeing Ryan on TV when I was a little girl. He told the talk show host that you couldn’t get AIDS from spit. You couldn’t get AIDS from a toilet seat. You couldn’t get AIDS from hugging or even kissing someone. The list went on and on, and I was absolutely blown away. I thought for sure I could get AIDS all the ways he said I couldn’t. This was earth-shattering stuff for a little girl who somehow, somewhere, had heard just the opposite. And it was earth shattering for all the stone throwers as well. AIDS is, of course, still stigmatized, but Ryan did so much to bring it to the forefront of public conversation in a completely different way than it had been before. He forever changed how HIV/AIDS is treated and perceived. Most importantly to the current conversation is how he softened the rhetoric. People could no longer blindly hurl insults and curses and epithets. Now they had a face. And having that faultless face in front of them, the stigma began to shift into something less than it was before and doors to treatment and discussion and greater understanding began to open.

But not just any person can do that for mental illness. 

To shift the stigma of mental illness the way White did for HIV/AIDS and begin a public conversation the way Jolie has for preventative mastectomy, the mental health movement needs an everyday champion. I am neither a psychiatrist nor a theologian, but in my layperson’s opinion, I believe the search committee for this champion should look for someone to demonstrate mental illness is not a sin. — someone of faith who can convince us that, just like with any other illness, while prayer might help, in the majority of instances a doctor and medication will be needed. Someone with the emotional intelligence to convince us that mental health issues are not born of weakness. Someone with thick skin, for obvious reasons. And most importantly, someone who can gently remind us all that we are to love our neighbor, even if that neighbor is the boogeyman.  

I don’t know who will answer this want ad, or if such a person even exists. But I do know that this softening and shift must occur for our greater good — and all the better if that shift could begin in the faith community, where leaders are uniquely positioned to reach many people at once, systems of help and ministry are already in place, and the message of love could resound all the louder to drown out those who might throw stones.

Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is a writer, poet, speaker, and attorney living in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, Andy, and their children. She is a frequent contributor to FaithVillage, and her work also can be found in Literary Mama, the Allegheny Review, and the Collegiate Scholar, among others.www.jamiecallowayhanauer.com

Image: Angelina Jolie, s_bukley / Shutterstock.com; Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joe Seer / Shutterstock.com

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