ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Condemnation for Having an Illness

By Jack Bragen
Friday December 20, 2013 - 02:49:00 PM

When someone has a psychotic or manic episode, which usually includes behavior that seems "abnormal," others sometimes attach a negative moral judgment. Behavior of persons with mental illness doesn't always fit the social or business norm, and it causes people to be condemned as "inappropriate." And being on the receiving end of this perception can hurt. Being labeled as "antisocial" or as a "nuisance person" has a lot of shame attached--and this shame, as well as the negative perception, ought not to be so. 

Someone with mental illness may not always have sufficient impulse control to properly follow social or business etiquette, and this includes when the person is stabilized. Although I am speaking largely for myself, I have seen a number of others with chronic mental illness with the same problem. 

People who are socializing and those in the business community don't always understand the differences and limitations of someone with mania or psychosis. And the medication doesn't always fix everything. 

When someone is condemned as immoral or as antisocial because of something that comes with, and is largely a symptom of, schizophrenia, it feels very unfair. When this condemnation is internalized, we become own worst tormentors. 

It is a complex issue when a disabled person wants to be treated as an equal, and yet at the same time is asking to be accommodated for problems. While I don't believe that we with mental illness should be condemned socially or otherwise for behavior that is largely caused by our illnesses, accountability has to enter in somewhere. 

When someone suffers from a very obvious disability such as blindness or paralysis, it is clear how that person needs help in doing certain things. However, with mental illness, you are looking at problems with behavior. This is in a culture that doesn't have a lot of tolerance for unusual or inexplicable behaviors. 

An example: It was a particular holiday--it may have been Gay Pride Day--and in its honor, a mentally ill man in his sixties or seventies (I won't say his name, but it was not I) was dancing with his shirt off in front of a store. (The store was in some ritzy area like Blackhawk.) The store owner called the police because they believed it was harming their business. Now there is a restraining order. 

I can sympathize with the store owner trying to make an honest living. However, this punishment might be excessively harsh for behavior that this man erroneously believed was okay. (The same behavior would have been perfectly acceptable had it taken place in a different location or context.) 

Martin Luther King said that people ought to be judged by the content of their character. Yet, when dealing with people who have a psychiatric disability, character isn't always obvious--it can get masked by erroneous behavior, speech and thoughts that are caused by mental illness. When dealing with a person with mental illness, you should filter out the problems introduced by the illness and try to find out what are their basic intentions. 

People are pretty much accountable for how they act. However, when mentally ill and experiencing symptoms, a person doesn't completely choose their actions--sometimes the illness does. So, although people are accountable, someone with mental illness isn't one hundred percent so. 

Perhaps "reasonable accommodation" under the ADA, for those with mental illness, could include, among other things, tolerating some amount of behavior that would ordinarily be a faux pas. 

Normally, mental health treatment venues don't teach survival skills, nor do they teach appropriate behavior in a social or business setting. The assumption is that we will always be dependent, and expectations follow from that. We are perceived as, and expected to behave as children in the bodies of adults--we are infantilized and "sheltered" accordingly. 

However, in mainstream society, people have limited tolerance for someone who isn't doing things according to implied rules. This is regardless of the fact that someone's differences may be harmless. I have experienced a lot of hard knocks in life when people were offended by my apparent rudeness or by me not following proper decorum. I am making an effort to fix this, yet I can only hope that people will meet me halfway. 

This is just a reminder that I can be reached at with your comments. My two books are, as always, available on Amazon: "Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia; A Self Help Manual" and "Jack Bragen's Essays on Mental Illness." To see my books for sale on Amazon, click here.