PPS School Board Member Mike Rosen: The stigma of mental illness

My View: The stigma of mental illness – Portland Tribune September 2015

Mike Rosen is a member of the Portland Public Schools board who recently resigned from his job with the city of Portland’s Bureau of Environmental Services because of its refusal to accommodate his disability. The article appeared in the Sept. 15 issue of the Tribune.

While the recent Tribune article isn’t the first time I’ve openly discussed my illness, it is by far the largest forum I’ve engaged, and the feedback I received reminded me why so few choose to admit to, much less discuss, their personal struggles with depression.

Mike RosenI have been diagnosed with recurrent, major depressive disorder. I have a family history of mental illness that includes great-grandparents, grandparents, parents, aunts, great-aunts, cousins and siblings. My symptoms essentially occur in two- to three-year cycles and are aggravated by severe stress. As noted in the Tribune, the occurrences during these past two years were much more frequent and much more severe. And, as with many sufferers of chronic illness, my tolerance and resilience have weakened over the years. My symptoms are typical: lethargy, self-isolation, constant negative rumination, and deep despair. Fortunately, I have a good medical and family support system that carries me through to the other side.

With each episode over the past 23-plus years, I have learned something powerful; this most recent time I learned that despite the statistics (one in five persons worldwide suffers from or has experienced a major depressive episode), society acts as if it’s best not to discuss the symptoms or treatment.

Even my friends, including those who know I deal with depression and those who suffer from depression themselves, criticized my public admission of mental illness. Some suggested I revealed too much and said it would affect my ability to obtain employment or hold elected office. Others wondered why the article would state that I experience mental illness, when I really suffer from depression. (For the record, depression is a form of mental illness, just as diabetes is a form of physical illness.)

I believe such reactions are fueled by fear and ignorance, which is why I want to continue the discussion.

The truth is that the great majority of those diagnosed with some form of mental illness are effectively treated by a combination of drugs, therapy and lifestyle changes. The rare few who are prone to violence come in at such low numbers as to be statistically insignificant. And as for overall creativity and productivity, we sufferers contribute much, if you consider that are our numbers include Bruce Springsteen, Rachel Maddow, Ellen Forney, Mike Wallace, Georgia O’Keefe, Walt Whitman, Herman Hesse and Virginia Woolf.

So as I move onto my next adventure, full of hope, I am even a little grateful for this disease. It has taught me compassion for myself and others, how lucky I am to have such supportive friends, family and medical care, and that continuing to admit my condition, as freely as someone admits they have diabetes, is a necessary and good thing.

Mike Rosen (Michaelrosen503@gmail.com) now happily co-manages a new nonprofit, the NW Ecoliteracy Collaborative, which works with teachers and under-represented communities to create and implement collaborative, sustainability, and community-based education for K-12.