|THE CONTRIBUTIONS OF THE MENTALLY ILL
TO HUMAN SOCIETY
Solidarity Member At Large
IT HAS BEEN STRONGLY URGED THAT MY SPEECH GIVEN BELOW,
WHICH HAS ALREADY BEEN PUBLISHED THREE TIMES,
BE PUT ON MY WEB html AS WELL
The following remarks were given at the Sunday morning service at Victory United Methodist Church, 1730
Woodlawn, Indianapolis, Indiana, on September 26, 2004. They were made as part of the commemoration of
Mental Health Awareness Week by Victory. These remarks were later published in the October-December, 2004
NAMI Indiana newsletter, and reprinted in the Solidarity Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 13, Issue 6 (May 23,
2005), where they received national exposure, and in the June, 2005 Indianapolis Peace & Justice Journal. Mr.
Fish, a long-time mental health consumer, peace with justice activist, and actively publishing writer, thanks the Rev.
Bonnie Plybon, pastor of Victory, for her giving him the opportunity to speak. Mr. Fish wishes to state that, were he
to prepare this speech again, he would change all designations of “mental illness/mentally ill” to “so-called mental
illness/mentally ill” because this is not only less pejorative, but actually more factual as well.
This person standing before you, I, myself, George Fish, is mentally ill. Surprised? Were you expecting to see a
raving lunatic standing before you because of my confession? Are you now afraid because of this, that I’ll do
something totally irrational or even threatening? Don’t be, and have no fear. I’m like the great majority of mentally
ill persons, odd sometimes, but really harmless to all. In fact, if I do undertake acts of aggression and destruction,
I, like almost all mentally ill persons who do so are far more likely to take that aggression and destructiveness out
on myself rather than others.
I’ve been called “strange” and “quirky” because of my mental illness. Let me share with you some of those other
“strange” and “quirky” mentally ill people who have left indelible, creative and positive marks on human history and
life. Let me say here that I am a depressive,that sometimes I go into moods of dark and deep despair. As did two
other notable depressives, both regarded as among the greatest statesmen the world has ever produced:
Abraham Lincoln and Winston Churchill. Perhaps you’ve heard of bipolar or manic-depressive disorder, where
those sufferers go spontaneously and unpredictably from moods of extreme enthusiasm and exhilaration to moods
of deep depressive funk. One of these was someone rightly regarded as one of history’s greatest geniuses, the
father of modern physics and co-creator of calculus, Sir Isaac Newton. Other notable manic-depressives include
poet Lord Byron and the founder of modern jazz, be-bop saxophonist Charlie Parker. Then there’s schizophrenia,
that mental disorder most frequently associated with hallucinations and delusions, supposedly making its sufferers
total wash-outs as human beings. Well, prominent among these schizophrenic “wash-outs” was someone rightly
regarded as one of the greatest and most creative artistic visionaries and stylists of the modern age, outstanding
painter Vincent Van Gogh.
But there are many, many other creators who were mentally ill, yet left indelible and brilliant marks on the pages
not only of history, but also of contemporary life. Nobel Laureate Ernest Hemmingway was a depressive, an
alcoholic, and ultimately a suicide. Another mentally ill Nobel Laureate was poet T.S. Eliot. Many of you are
familiar with the movie A Beautiful Mind, the biography of yet a third mentally ill Nobel Laureate, mathematician
John Nash, who lived thirty years in the dark shadow of paranoid schizophrenia. And there was Edgar Alan Poe,
father of the modern short story, the modern horror story, and also the father of the modern mystery – someone
brilliantly creative to be sure, we’d all agree, but a depressive, a compulsive gambler, an alcoholic, and a drug
addict. But would our world be better off if he had not existed?
In contemporary life, persons who’ve suffered mental illness include noted writer William Styron, who suffered
major depression late in life, a common malady, but who wrote a distinguished and popular book on his depression
and recovery. Other contemporaries who’ve suffered major mental illness include investigative reporter Mike
Wallace of “60 Minutes” fame, singer Garth Brooks, PBS personality Dick Cavett, and even “America’s oldest
teenager,” American Bandstand creator Dick Clark.
Nor does mental illness distinguish between genders. Noted poet, depressive and ultimate suicide Sylvia Plath was
mentally ill, as were writer Virginia Wolff, also a suicide, and poet Emily Dickinson. Distinguished actress Patty
Duke-Aston was a manic-depressive, but also President of the Screen Actor’s Guild.
On the other hand, despite the many criticisms leveled at him, not even his severest critics have ever questioned
George W. Bush’s sanity, even on his handling of the War in Iraq and the economy!
So we see here that the mentally ill have contributed, do contribute, to making human life better. Contributed, and
still contribute, despite great and debilitating obstacles. And that leads to this reflection – how much could we
numerous lesser who are also mentally ill accomplish, contribute, were we not systematically discriminated against
and dismissed because we are automatically considered “strange,” “quirky” and “wash-outs!” For they are
palpable and demonstrated facts that not only do we who are mentally ill suffer from the stigma of our illness, but
we also face regular and systematic discrimination in employment, housing, education, and all too frequently, have
this discrimination compounded by our “helpers,” by an all-too-often callous, under-funded and incompetent
psychiatric system. For, clearly, the examples of prominent mentally ill contributors listed above tell us that mental
illness is just as much a part of the human condition as cancer or heart disease. And even though, for many of us,
we are now able to live close to normal lives and manage our symptoms the same as diabetics or sufferers from
high blood pressure, even though we may have to take medication for the rest of our natural lives, again, the same
as diabetics or sufferers from high blood pressure – does anyone consider diabetics or sufferers from high blood
pressure “abnormal” because they must do so?
And so I end as one who has been in the maw of psychiatry, and directly experienced both its good and all-too-
frequently bad aspects, by urging any of you who suffer from untreated mental illness not to fall victim to stigma
and go see a psychiatrist. And if you’re put on a regimen of treatment, don’t reject it out of hand, but do take it
with a grain of salt and never hesitate to ask any question that comes to mind of your mental health practitioners –
be they psychiatrists, therapists, or case managers. For even if, as happens all too often, they will regard your
questions as stupid or having obvious answers – or even worse, condescend to you and act as though you were
stupid – when it comes to the best interests of your mental health, there is no such thing as a stupid question or a
question with an obvious answer. This is especially true as regards medication, for many of these drugs do have
serious and often debilitating side effects. But in ending, I urge you to follow this course if needed, be strong and
steadfast, and always remember that we mentally ill are also as you who are “normal,” bound to you and the
human community by a shared humanity and intelligence. Thank you.