Photo: CC, Manny Broussard.
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This past October, we saw hip-hop artist Kid Cudi check into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. He wrote in a Facebook post that it was hard for him to admit to his illness because he was “ashamed to be a leader and hero to so many while admitting (he had) been living a lie.”

But why should someone who has dealt with a high-stress environment, and is under constant watch from the public eye, feel shame about admitting that this pressure has a toll? The answer is simple—society’s stereotypes about those with mental illness often miss the mark.

When you picture someone with a severe mental illness, you might think about a person who must be hospitalized indefinitely. You may assign this label to someone who completely lacks meaningful relationships with others. Perhaps you jump to the conclusion that someone who is mentally ill cannot possibly excel in academia or work environments.

However, if we want to truly understand mental health, and if those who suffer from high-functioning mental illness are ever to be treated properly, we must deconstruct these ill-informed assumptions.

A joint study by the University of California (Los Angeles), the University of Southern California, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs seeks to do exactly that. The project follows a group of 20 people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or schizoaffective disorder—among them a lawyer, two doctors, and a chief executive officer. 

While the study is ongoing, it has already forced the administrating psychologists to re-evaluate their beliefs about the prognosis of schizophrenia, and how a person’s lifestyle must be changed to adapt.

Dr. Stephen R. Marder is a director of the psychosis section at UCLA’s Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, a psychiatrist with the V.A. Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System and one of the authors of the study. In an interview with the New York Times, Marder said that “For years, we as psychiatrists have been telling people with a diagnosis what to expect; we’ve been telling them who they are, how to change their lives—and it was bad information.”

It turns out that the participants in the study were able to reach their career goals not by lowering their standards based on illness, but by using certain techniques—medication, thought and perception check-ins with others, active control of their environment, avoidance of drugs and alcohol—to manage their illness.

This study pointedly suggests what we already know from the case of Kid Cudi’s struggle with mental illness—it is possible to suffer from a severe mental illness while maintaining a functional appearance and achieving one’s goals.

When we forget this, we dismiss a huge group of people as unable to reach their high goals—we forget that the goals of the mentally ill are in fact attainable.

This was true for Marsha M. Lineham, a woman who created a treatment, called “radical acceptance,” that is now used worldwide for severely suicidal people. Despite the fact that, according to the New York Times, Lineham was “an excellent student from early on, a natural on the piano … an outgoing woman who juggled child care with the Junior League and Tulsa social events,” she was also eventually hospitalized for her untreated mental illness.

The New York Times also spoke with a man named Joe Holt about his schizophrenia, which he is now able to manage despite providing voluntary care for a constant stream of foster children on top of holding a steady job. Similar to Lineham, it wasn’t until Holt had a gun to his head that his loved ones took notice and he was hospitalized for his condition.

Rapper Kanye West, who was just released from hospital after undergoing a psychiatric evaluation, also had his first six albums go platinum, and received 21 Grammy Awards. Although West has suffered loss and trauma throughout his career he continued to be productive, releasing hit albums following both his 2002 car accident and his mother’s passing in 2007.  Despite his resilience, the stress of being under the media’s microscope as a successful artist was likely a barrier in addressing his budding mental illness.

If anything can be taken away from these stories, it’s that people with high-functioning mental illness can be especially at risk of going undetected until it’s too late.

A growing body of international evidence is showing that early intervention for those suffering from mental illness can make a huge difference. But this is what makes high-functioning mental illness such an insidious ailment—all too often people will not notice the person suffering until that person is at the point where they need to be hospitalized.

According to the Canadian Association of Mental Health, young people aged 15 to 24 are more likely than any other age group to experience mental illness. With this in mind, it’s time for us to re-evaluate our preconceptions of what severe mental illness looks like, and to dismantle the notion that it has a homogenous appearance.

Because when we assume that people are OK because they are succeeding at their goals, we delegitimize their experience with mental illness. If anything, we should be actively inviting those with high-functioning mental illness to share their experiences earlier than when they land in a hospital bed.

Perhaps then we can learn more about how we can all manage mental illness, and reach for our goals knowing that they are, in fact, achievable.