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The Surprising Truth about Mental Illness

The Surprising Truth about Mental Illness

Oct 12 2012
Royce White is one of the NBA's hottest rookies. He also has crippling anxiety disorder. What we can learn from him about mental health.

With a new NBA season's first tip-off around the corner, Houston Rockets rookie Royce White is causing a minor sensation with his alternative plan for transportation between games: a bus. Conventionally, NBA teams fly from one city to another, but whenever possible, Houston is making an exception for White.

NBA fans will not be shocked to hear that a young star—even a rookie—would place demands on his team. But White is not simply being difficult or demanding. He's taking care of his health. White suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, a potentially paralyzing mental disorder that affects about 6.8 million adults in the United States. One symptom of his illness: fear of flying. Because the Rockets want White in top form for their games, they are allowing him to travel on the ground whenever possible.

That exception itself has grabbed at least as much attention as White's refusal to fly. Some fans wonder why he should receive special treatment. This is why: "The Rockets are being accommodating toward White because they believe he is one of the top big men prospects to come along in some time. So they're meeting him halfway by letting him get on a bus and drive away."

White's college-career accomplishments and his potential have earned him the opportunity to use his gifts productively and take care of himself at the same time. Not everyone is afforded the same latitude. Our society tends to assume people with mental illnesses are by nature unproductive and irrelevant. We're so wrong.

Recall Edvard Munch's most famous painting, "The Scream," and it only makes sense. Read his description of the emotional moment he captured in the painting, and it seems likely: Munch may have been plagued by panic attacks.

In September, The Atlantic featured Munch and 10 other profoundly influential historical figures who may have suffered from mental illness. Abraham Lincoln suffered from severe depression, the article claims. Beethoven from bipolar disorder. And Isaac Newton … well, everything.

While we can't take these "diagnoses" as official, given their posthumous delivery, they aren't offered without evidence. And the list of profoundly influential people should give us pause.

All experienced their productive years and brilliant achievements before the most modern developments in brain science, psychotherapy, and pharmaceuticals. And yet, despite their suffering—or perhaps, at least in some cases, because of their suffering—they were able to make outstanding contributions to society.

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