ON MENTAL ILLNESS: Not a Character Defect

Jack Bragen
Friday March 31, 2017 - 02:44:00 PM

When someone has cancer, people collectively furnish sympathy and support, and we often will at least give lip service to them being "brave," and we may say they are "battling cancer," which brings up images of an honorable knight battling a dragon.  

People with cancer aren't blamed for their cancer. Instead, often they are put on a pedestal. When someone has suffered a stroke, a heart attack or cancer, people are expected to be supportive, sympathetic, and caring. And there is nothing wrong with this--when people are sick, they need support and help to get through it.  

However, when someone has a mental illness, such as bipolar, depression or psychosis, they are criminalized, demonized, blamed for their illness, and considered, by most, to be a dishonorable person. You do not see a lot of "get well" cards in a psychiatric hospital. You do not see very many people bringing flowers and cards.  

(On the other hand, my family has been very supportive of me when I have fallen ill with psychotic episodes, and I am very much indebted for this. So, there are exceptions.) 

It is not socially acceptable to hate a person due to the color of his or her skin, due to sexual orientation, or due to their religious faith being different. Yet, if someone has a mental illness, there is a social green light giving the go ahead to hate and shun that person.  

Populations with mental illness, the same as those in any categorization of people, will have some individuals with poor character and will have some with better character. Yet, most people tend to oversimplify. When people see one person with mental illness "behaving badly" it promulgates the myth that mental illness is equivalent to turpitude.  

Mental illness is different because it is a medical condition that frequently alters behavior and speech. When in remission from mental illness, behavior and speech will be better but still may not be pristine.  

While we may not have bad intentions, our illness may sometimes betray us and may cause antisocial behavior and speech. This is not usually by intent. And not all mentally ill people are like this, only some. 

People with mental illness, at some point, must take responsibility for their behavior. However, this is very much a gray area. These conditions affect the ability of the brain to distinguish what should and shouldn't be said or done.  

What if we were to drop the moral condemnation altogether, and simply try to help the mentally ill person get well and learn better behavior patterns?  

You may wonder, but you probably don't, how it feels to be on the receiving end of people's disdain, hate, and exclusion. Whether you want to know this or not, I will tell you it is damn painful. There is not very much that a mentally ill person, individually, can do about this.  

It is very important that we learn to value ourselves regardless of what others may say and think about us. We don't have to agree with those who are against us. Doing that would be akin to siding with your enemy who is waging war on you.  

Yet, we must not act on an impulse to "get even." Personally, I have no such impulse, and instead I simply long to see the day when people will have an understanding of who I really am, and will accept me, socially, as the worthy human being, who they currently, mistakenly, believe I am not.  

I believe that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream can only come to be when we reach a point where people with mind-altering diseases are included, and not just people of a different skin color. All hate is bad, including the hate and intolerance toward those who have a brain condition that affects behavior, one that makes us a very misunderstood category of people.