Articles, Blog

A humanistic view of mental illness: Theo Bennett at TEDxBozeman

December 10, 2019

Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Mile Živković My dad called me
from Seattle last spring, telling me about
his new ground-breaking novel entitled “Harry Potter goes to college,” which would follow
the newly ripened wizard and document his experiences,
but on an American campus. And so, I already know
what you are thinking: “This guy is crazy.” You are right. In wilful ignorance, my father planned
to completely ignore copyright laws, steal intellectual property, but, most importantly,
make millions in the process. And on top of this, on top of tackling one of the most successful series
of books of all time, he was also in the process
of writing two other memoirs, about something that many
of us have experience with, but yet we shy away
from talking openly about. And that is mental illness. You see, my dad is bipolar. And so, while we were brainstorming
over the phone, the static connecting our voices
from two seemingly different realities, I once again felt the familiar weight that accompanied
my father’s bipolarity return as well. Now, I’m obviously totally open
to the whole process, but the first time that I was forced
to face my father’s bipolarity, I’d barely turned 12 years old. And, as this kid, I was confused, because my dad is already a bit manic and so, as a 12-year old boy,
I just thought he was overly excited. I saw him throwing himself
into every facet of human experience, and I wanted to jump in there with him. But granted, I wasn’t around to experience
the darker side of the mania, the hallucinations and the nights
spent in the hospital, but I was there when it all came down. And so, let me tell you from experience that depression is immeasurably crippling. The days are hazy in memory, I’ll admit, but I do remember a few details clearly: coming home to our house
completely reorganized by my completely unorganized dad, and the nights spent with my ear
pressed to the floor boards trying to listen to my father
cry softly below me, as the fan above me did nothing
but stir the summer heat. Hearing your father cry is an act
that kids experience all too rarely. And so in my immaturity,
I was embarrassed and afraid of a lot more than just the fact
that my Dad was slowly going crazy. I had to not only face
the vulnerability in a man who had literally
and emotionally raised me, but also confront my own ideas of what I thought it meant
to have a mental disorder. Through this experience, however,
I’ve come to learn more about myself and the human condition
than I’d ever thought possible. And I’m so grateful for that, especially because
when the inevitable call came to extend my father’s journey
for another bout with mania and depression the second time around, I was able to accept my father’s condition
despite my own vulnerability. You see, the fluidity of mental disorders
is what I find so fascinating. But yet at the same time it has prevented
those very same disorders from gaining societal acceptance
in the same way that physical illness has. Our society is so driven
around self-improvement that sometimes mental illness
gets confused with mental weakness. And this is just not the case. In talking with family and friends,
I became increasingly frustrated by how we, as this support network
jumped to totally ineffective ways of showing our support;
and we’re all equally guilty. We’ve all said: “Oh, you’re so strong. I know you can do it. Just keep
your chin up one day at a time.” And while I’m a huge advocate
of positive thinking, just take a moment and imagine
saying that to a diabetic: “Oh, I love you. You’re so strong. Just
keep producing insulin one day at a time.” (Laughter) It’s laughable. Our current perspective
of mental disorders is laughable. And it’s not our fault.
It’s just how we’ve been raised. More importantly, however, our perception
of mental illness is skewed because we understand much less about
the mechanisms and treatment behind mental disorders
than we do of physical ones. We just don’t understand. And this, this is what makes grappling
with a mental disorder perhaps, one of the most difficult challenges
that one can experience. Because even if you lived
in a perfect world, full of perfect people who fully understood that mental illness
is just the same as physical illness, this idea is so ingrained
into our society, that convincing yourself
that you are not weak, that mental illness is normal,
that you are normal is perhaps one
of the most difficult things to do. So, what can we do? For starters, I want each and every one
of you right now to raise your hand, if you know someone closely and personally
who suffers from a mental illness. Now, take a look around.
It’s not exactly surprising. But what I want each and every one
of you to realize is that we, as this massive support network, can do just as much
in the way of treatment as we can to change
our own perspectives. And, if nothing else, just learning more about what your friend
or loved one is suffering with can never hurt. Because for someone who’s dealing
with mental illness, even talking openly, eating right, and exercising can be just
as important as medication for treatment. Again, treatment should be holistic
because we’re talking about mothers, daughters, fathers, and sons, not just cerebral soup
that is somehow missing an ingredient. The years between 12
and where I’m standing today were spent marking
much more than just time. In an effort to understand
the drastic change in my father, I sought high school courses,
I shadowed psychiatrists, and I read articles online;
and I learned a ton. But not everything that I learned
was exactly reassuring. And in order to illustrate this point,
let’s briefly extend the analogy between diabetics and those suffering
from mental illness, just one more time. So, if you were concerned
that you are suffering with diabetes, you walk into a doctor’s office and you are given
multiple blood work tests, and a concrete answer
that varies by only half a percent. Half a percent. And yet at the same time, if I was concerned that I’m dealing
with depression for example, I’d walk into that same doctor’s office
and I’m given what? A questionnaire and a pamphlet. It’s 2014 and yet,
this is how we diagnose a disorder that affects
more than 15 million Americans. And our medications
like Prozac, Paxel, and lithium have shown to work for many people. But again, they’re grossly inefficient because they change the chemistry
of the brain as a whole, as opposed to those specific pathways
that are actually affected. What we need to do,
using American ingenuity and the medical technology
that we do have, is design a new generation of medications that specifically targets those regions
that are affected, in order to get rid of the awful side effects
of our current options. Essentially, what I’m trying to say is that our perspective and treatment
of mental illness should reflect the complexity
of those disorders themselves. Now, there are many things
that can and need to be changed about our mental health care system, but the bottom line
is that we, as human beings, owe it to ourselves
to be a part of this change. If I’ve learned one thing, having been
raised in a patriarchal society, is that there is nothing more weak than telling another man
that you truly love him. And dad, I love you. I believe in part that your journey
has made us the men that we are today. We’ve laughed harder
for all the times spent crying, appreciated spring for all the winters, and marveled on mountain tops at all the valleys
that lay below and behind us. Through your precipitous highs
and seemingly endless lows, we’ve both loved more
and been loved more. All in all, I’ve just come
to the realization of the intense beauty that exists
in an uneven balance between mania and depression. So call those people
who you’ve just raised your hand for. And thank you. (Applause) Hey, hold on. Come back here. Come here. (Applause) It’s awesome, that was awesome. (Applause)


  • Reply steve dorado May 3, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Thank you for sharing your story & your insight.

  • Reply BETSY PAHUT May 19, 2014 at 10:34 pm

    Wise beyond your years!  Thank you for sharing your pain and your experiences.  You will make a difference in this world for so many. 

  • Reply slice orice May 23, 2014 at 3:27 am

    It's good to hear from someone that has experience outside the box of bipolar. 

  • Reply Simple and sweet April 10, 2015 at 9:11 pm

    Your love for your Dad is so obvious Theo. Well done. Your concern is inspiring. And yes, i shall call my brother tomorrow.

  • Reply Jeff Tam September 26, 2015 at 7:21 am

    Thank you Theo. I too have a father with mental illness. We all must strive to be understanding and compassionate. Great job!

  • Reply gmoore37 October 30, 2015 at 12:48 pm

    The issue is too often swept under the rug as in my family. You are brave and I believe you will make a difference with the gift you have for speaking and bringing awareness. Stand strong young man, God bless you and your family as you carry this torch.

  • Reply Sparkling in the Void November 26, 2015 at 5:44 am

    This was wonderful.

  • Reply John Barrett April 8, 2016 at 12:05 am

    This is awesome . He has amazing insight .

  • Reply Yaping Huang October 15, 2016 at 11:45 pm

    Such an inspirational speech!

  • Reply Livia Kelly November 22, 2016 at 12:10 am

    Uhh can I marry him. So amazing.

  • Reply Lauryn Olivia January 11, 2017 at 4:11 am

    That was an amazing speech

  • Reply contrafax July 28, 2017 at 4:27 pm

    There is some hope, there are now tests for depression.

  • Reply Maria Augusta Silva September 30, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    Well done Theo Bennett. Congratulations and keep on …..

  • Reply Hailey and the Brainstormers October 19, 2017 at 7:48 am

    "mental illness gets confused with mental weakness", …well put! Thank you for sharing your experience and insights.

  • Reply Amy Belitsos April 13, 2018 at 3:10 am

    So inspiring and brilliant.

  • Reply Amber Woloshen October 5, 2018 at 7:39 am

    That was absolutely fabulous! Thank you so much for sharing your insights. Very brave young man, your father must be so proud. Xo

  • Reply Sakshi Semwal November 10, 2018 at 8:43 am

    I would believe that we as humans have evolved… The day when mental health would be given as much relevance as physical health!
    Ur story brought tears in my eyes! Thanks for sharing!
    Hearing u was a very enlightening experience for me as a psychology student! And I guess that's the difference between simply reading and actually feeling it! I felt it and for almost 9 minutes, I lived ur pain! Being mentally ill should be considered as much normal as physical variations!
    And we need to be more understanding and more empathic towards such people!

    All power to u! ?

  • Reply G. Keith Walker November 17, 2018 at 12:30 am

    Tear. Great talk young star!

  • Reply Hello hello March 5, 2019 at 1:39 am

    Amazing talk. Thank you young man!

  • Reply Brian Bishoff April 6, 2019 at 5:37 pm

    Now THAT is a TED talk! Powerful, personal and profound

  • Reply microphone dropper July 7, 2019 at 3:46 am

    I really feel for this guy. But also as a young man, what we "NEED" is someone who has both studied and experienced this over a long period of time, to asses the complicated material at hand. We're getting ahead of ourselves just a bit, in conclusion, unless that's not obvious. Hence one of the reasons why we are at this confusing point in society. No offence to the speaker; but even the "patriarchy" demands a better assessment, given to the complexity of: age's vs society's.

  • Reply Rachel Smith August 9, 2019 at 9:41 pm

    this is so awesome

  • Reply Diane VanHandel October 28, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    This young lad gets it!

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