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A friend pointed me to a new phenomenon that’s gotten little publicity before now: growing numbers of people with mental illnesses — or “extreme mental states,” as some prefer to call them — have chosen to become more open about their conditions in hopes of gaining greater understanding. The movement has gotten enough traction to garner a feature article in the New York Times.

The bandwagon is barely rolling as yet, but there are plenty people who are qualified to jump on: the National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 5.7 million Americans over 18 suffer from bipolar disorder, which mainly affects moods, and 1.8 deal with schizophrenia, described as a thought disorder. Other mental illnesses, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, also affect an increasing portion of the population.

Rather than suffer in the shadows, some who deal with mental illnesses have taken their concerns beyond therapy groups, chat rooms, and blogs. They seek to fight the stigma of mental illness more openly by embracing the term “mad” and bringing attention to the issues of prejudice that persons with mental diseases often face. While mental illness is no laughing matter, some (like popular blogger Liz Spikol) find it helpful to take their conditions in stride and use humor as a means of helping others understand.

Mental health activists see the issue as a matter of human rights, and argue that being “mad” due to mental illness does not prevent persons from being a positive and contributing members of society. To draw attention to the issue, loosely connected groups in at least seven countries have sponsored “Mad Pride” events that reportedly drew thousands of participants.

Mindfreedom International, a non-profit mental health advocacy group, promotes such events in support of its vision to “Unite in a spirit of mutual cooperation for a nonviolent revolution of mental health human rights and choice.”

If you think it sounds strange to hear someone embrace the term “mad” as a positive rather than pejorative adjective, folks in London have taken ownership of the term “bonkers,” sponsoring a “Bonkersfest” in 2007 and planning others, including one at the original Bedlam asylum, in 2008.

The Icarus Project, whose motto is “Navigating the space between brilliance and madness,” maintains a Website that provides information and facilitates contacts between Mad Pride groups, including one in Asheville, N.C.

Supporters hope that “pride” events and more open discussion will help sufferers of mental illness to have more confidence in themselves while encouraging others to be more accepting of them and their illness.

I have known many people who face various mental or emotional challenges with courage and grace, often living high-functioning lives despite having to devote extra energy to fighting off inner demons that most of us don’t have to confront.

“Mad” or not, they’ve already earned my respect.

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