Due to quite a few recent tragedies, debates about mental illness have been prominent in the public eye. Perhaps they aren’t as visible as, say, gun control laws or Lance Armstrong’s shadiness, but they have quite a presence.
The debate is couched in terms that express “concern” for people who are mentally ill, and no doubt many commentators do feel concerned about people with mental illness. But there are implicitly darker tones, and these tones worry me.
They worry me because they have the potential to increase the stigma against mental illness in the name of helping those with a mental illness.
As far as I understand it, the argument is that we should help those with a mental illness before it becomes severe enough to make them act violently.
That is a noble idea. People should get the help they need. Maybe people’s lives can be saved by pursuing this policy.
But what about those of us who struggle with a mental illness yet do not have violent tendencies? Or those of us who do have violent tendencies yet can refrain from acting upon them?
There’s an excellent recent article in The New York Times that explores problems with the recent mental health debate, but I’m going to discuss other ideas. I’m going to take a more personal tack, speaking as someone who is diagnosed with a mental illness. I’m going to talk about why I feel as if some of the debates will increase the stigma, a stigma that already makes me feel as if I have to hide my mental health issues.
There’s already a misconception that most people with a mental illness are violent. This comes out in a lot of crime dramas. The most concrete example I can think of is an episode of Criminal Minds I once watched. At the end of the episode, it was revealed that the murderer had committed their crimes because they had borderline personality disorder. At the time, I’d suspected I could have borderline personality disorder. I can safely assure you that I’d never do something similarly violent. While these days it seems I might not have borderline personality disorder, nevertheless I know people with that diagnosis, and I’m sure they wouldn’t commit those types of crimes, either. This is one reason why a person may not want to disclose a diagnosis of mental illness–they’re afraid that people will automatically dismiss them as violent because of what they see on TV shows.
If society adopts a heavily mainstream attitude that mental illness automatically equates to violence, how many people are going to want to seek a diagnosis? How many people would feel that they can freely admit to the diagnosis? I’d wager very few.
If people are reluctant to see a professional because of the connotations of violence, how is that going to help people who do endure a mental illness? For that matter, how is that going to curtail acts committed by those who are violent and mentally ill?
I fear that the focus on violence and mental illness could return us to the dark ages of mental health treatment. Of locking away anyone who exhibits any sign of mental illness in order to protect society from “those people.” Of course, this wouldn’t be the sort of language used. The justification would be that the arrangement gives those with a mental illness the help they really need. This wouldn’t happen right away; it would be so gradual that the choice would seem natural to the general public. But, to me, that seems to be the path indicated by the association between violence and mental illness.
But the fact of the matter remains that most people with a mental illness aren’t violent. Just as most people in the general public aren’t violent. There are people out there who are both violent and mentally ill, and there are people out there who are both violent and not mentally ill.
Most people with a mental illness can and do function in society. They contribute to society, too. Yes, perhaps they need some accommodations, but so do many other people as well. Only by lessening the stigma (I’m not optimistic enough to believe that removal is likely) will people be willing to seek out the help they need and deserve.
Then again, I understand that there are a few individuals whose mental illness may goad them into violence. These people do need help to deal with those impulses. That help could prevent disasters, perhaps.
But how are we to tell who those people are? There’s no surefire way.
Therefore, I feel that targeting mental health is the wrong way to tackle the issue. I suspect a bigger culprit may be our society’s promotion of fame at any cost.
I don’t have any answers, and I don’t believe the potential answers are easy to come by. All I have are thoughts I hope will showcase the complexity of the issue and serve as a warning against absolutism.
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