In terms of fighting the stigma that still surrounds mental illness, I have been heartened by the recent media attention to the problem through public service ads in which prominent athletes such as Michael Phelps appear. More recently the New York Times has been devoting more attention to the issue with articles about the skater Gracie Gold, the psychologist Caroline Eton who counsels doctors in Great Britain, and the orchestra made up of musicians with mental health issues. (See the end of this article for these stories). All this is a welcome relief from the images of the unfortunate deinstitutionalized homeless and the mentally unbalanced school shooters.
I thought the fact that such images and stories of more mainstream people with mental illness was a new trend and perhaps it is. But the other night I was watching the movie “The Right Stuff” and decided to take a closer look at its genesis as I had not remembered there being a shadow cast over Gus Grissom’s actions. It turns out the movie does him a disservice, but my researches lead me to the original article by Tom Wolfe for Rolling Stone, “Post-Orbital Remorse,” upon which he based his book. And this article lead me to Buzz Aldrin. The anonymous narrator of “Post-Orbital Remorse”, written as if he is one of the astronauts, talks of Aldrin’s publicly stating that he was heading for a nervous breakdown. Here was someone with “the right stuff,” fighter pilot, second man on the moon with a doctorate thrown in from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology facing his demons, depression and alcoholism, in the light of day. At a time when mental illness was mostly kept private, here Buzz Aldrin goes and writes a book about it in 1973 Return to Earth. He recounts his family history of depression and states “It is my devout wish to bring emotional depression into the open and so treat it as one does a physical infirmity. I want my children to know so that if they too become ill they will see the symptoms and seek help.” This took bravery and from my point of view was evidence of his having “the right stuff.”
But all of us who have faced mental illness, either ourselves and/or in our family, can have “the right stuff.” Research has shown that in combatting the stigma attached to mental illness, it is helpful if opinion leaders raise their voices, but that the seemingly most effective means is through “contact,” that is, by individuals with mental illnesses talking to others about their conditions, giving a more “realistic” and human face to what is in fact a widespread problem. In the process you will educate others and perhaps help someone facing a mental crisis feel less isolated and alone.