Basically being mentally ill and a disability activist on the internet after a national tragedy is like the ninth circle of hell. It is a parade of all the worst people that life has to offer you. If you would like to opt out of this parade, please at least learn these four extremely simple things.
1) Mental illnesses are a disability
Mental illnesses almost always happen when a biological defect meets an unfavorable environment. For example, estrogen is thought to insulate the brain from trauma, and women with lower estrogen are thought to be more vulnerable to post traumatic stress. Mental illnesses themselves generate physiological effects such as cardiac events, shorter lifespans, intestinal distress and other responses. Although people with mental illnesses range widely in functioning, all people with mental illnesses are challenged by their illnesses in a way that an abled person is not and will never be. Most mental illnesses, if fully treated as a medical phenomenon and not put to the side as a personal shortcoming, are chronic in the sense that they will come out of remission and have lingering effects.
2) People with mental health issues face serious discrimination
Schools and workplaces are not generally willing to accommodate people experiencing a severe mental health event, either on or off the premises. While persons with visible disabilities are generally accommodated with ramps, elevators, service animals, braille, etc, people with severe depression are not generally given routine (biweekly or monthly) daytime time hours off to see their psychiatric personnel. People with severe anxiety are not granted a low stress environment. Employers generally fear mental illness and will not hire people known to be mentally ill.
If a person is found to be mentally ill, that is reason enough to be declared legally incompetent, which essentially suspends all of their legal rights. Children can be taken, medical treatment can be forcefully given (this is colloquially referred to as “assisted” treatment) or withheld and assets can be seized and sold by anyone to whom the state grants power of attorney. This is not letter of the law stuff, but something that actually happens every day.
3) When people talk about stigma, we are talking about the underlying beliefs that cause #2. If you perpetuate those beliefs, you are partially responsible for this discrimination.
Today I heard someone blame all of slavery and the Holocaust on mental illness. When these sort of beliefs are acceptable to share in public; when they are so salient that the speaker expects no backlash, how are people living with mental illness expected to integrate ourselves into the mainstream? Despite all evidence to the contrary, which I’ve covered before, people will attribute literally everything that is evil to the mentally ill. Wouldn’t you want to bar the harbingers of everything evil and wrong from your schools and workplaces? Wouldn’t you want to take a different seat on the bus if you were sitting next to one of them?
4) Whenever there’s a big national tragedy, it doesn’t make you a bigger, better person to make a maudlin display about sympathizing with the killer who slipped through the cracks.
First of all, that is exactly what the killer wants. That is why people become killers; so that an entire society takes a forensic lens to their lives and voraciously consumes it; blames the people they blamed and examines what they imagined their injustices to be. Doing this encourages other killers. Second of all, while people stampede to forgive and explain the killers, no one seems to notice the real mental health crisis— that of the bystanders and loved ones of the slain. Sure, there’s an outpouring of platitudes and prayers (which I consider equally useless as an atheist, sorry) but does public policy change to get them the help they might need in order to recover? No. Never. We couldn’t even guarantee physical healthcare to the handful of 9/11 survivors, for example, let alone all the people who were mentally harmed.
I’m reminded of one of the more disappointing moments of my lifetime. A friend had raped me in my home as a teenager and I made the choice to tell my mother, who despite my humiliated protests, decided to write him a letter explaining how he had hurt her, and how she was going to be the bigger person by forgiving him. This event was not so much about compassion, in my opinion, as it was about severe egotism, self-absorption and a selfish choice to harmfully re-contextualize a situation instead of dealing with it.
Theoretically, “forgiveness” is not in direct opposition to victim care, but in all of my life, I have never seen the former accomplished without near total erasure of the latter. My mother did not seek legal redress for my situation, nor advise me how to do so, nor did she get me medical attention— neither physical, nor mental.