Social transformation can lead to revolutionary medical change. Consider the HIV/AIDS movement. On June 5, 1981, the CDC reported unusual clusters of a specific type of pneumonia. No one knew why these infections were spreading, but they concluded that there must be an infectious ‘disease’ causing them. By September of 1982, the ‘disease’ was finally named AIDS.
Many contended that the Reagan administration dragged its feet in dealing with the crisis allowing hundreds of thousands of people to die needlessly. It was not until vocal advocacy groups such as ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power led by playwright Larry Kramer and Randy Shilt’s 1987 book, And the Band Played On, galvanized a movement.
Initially labeled as the “gay” disease, publicity campaigns were started in attempts to counter the false perceptions of AIDS. Red ribbon crusades, celebrity dinners, public figures opening up about contracting HIV such as actor Rock Hudson, tennis player Arthur Ashe, singer Freddie Mercury and basketball star Magic Johnson, awakened support for finding cures.
Larry Kramer famously stated, “AIDS is a plague – numerically, statistically and by any definition known to modern public health – though no one in authority has the guts to call it one.”
There is another severe health crisis in our midst. It is one engulfed in social stigma and shame. It is called mental illness.
Schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, major depression, these diseases control the minds and well-being of ourselves and those around us. This year alone, over 43 million Americans will have a diagnosable mental illness. That is ten times more than cancer, heart disease, and diabetes combined. Yet, where is the outcry for more research, new medications, progressive therapies?
When a loved one is diagnosed with a disease such as cancer, friends and family will surround them with love and compassion. You will immediately find teams of doctors working tirelessly to create a regiment. Individuals and families seek out the latest, cutting-edge treatments to throw the disease into remission; focusing solely on the recovery process.
Yet, do we view mental illness the same? The time has come for social transformation, to join together and learn from our brothers and sisters in the HIV/AIDS community.
We must demand our political leaders view conditions above the neck the same as they do conditions below the neck. We must educate our communities that mental health recovery is possible while breaking the cycle of shame and stigma. We must work to create a society where we are as willing to discuss our fight with depression as we are our fight with heart disease. And most importantly, we must continue to fight for new medical treatments and therapies to ensure each one of us has the ability to live a fulfilling life free of symptoms.