In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, it became clear how cruel people and can be towards the mentally ill. One Fox News host, apparently unable to even imagine the immense pain Robin Williams must have been going through, instead called him a coward . Others called him “selfish” or “a bad parent.” And that’s only what made the news; plenty of private acts of cruelty occurred on less famous social media feeds.
In response, there were also a flurry of articles talking about de-stigmatizing mental illness. This is an admirable and necessary goal; but so many articles decided that the answer to “why you shouldn’t be dismissive, condescending and generally insensitive to the mentally ill” was “because it’s a disease like any other.”
But talking about it this way with the hopes of making things better for the mentally ill is the wrong way to go about it.
It doesn’t de-stigmatize the mentally ill.
Studies have repeatedly shown a correlation between the belief in a biogenetic cause of mental illness and prejudice. This is true worldwide, from Germany to Mongolia. In Turkey, for example, those who saw mental illness as akil hastaligi, or illness of the brain, were more likely to assert that schizophrenics, in particular, should not be allowed to live free because they were dangerous.
A little closer to home, Jason Schnittker, author of An Uncertain Revolution: Why the Rise of a Genetic Model Has Not Increased Tolerance, discovered that from 1996 to 2006, while Americans were increasingly tolerant of using psychiatric drugs to treat mental illness, there was no associated increase in social tolerance for the mentally ill. He suggests that “genetic arguments… encourage the view that mental illness is impersonal and uncontrollable in development, but more stable and unyielding in its course.”
Taking the medical approach to mental illness “carries with it the subtle assumption that a brain made ill through biomedical or genetic abnormalities is more thoroughly broken and permanently abnormal compared to one made ill through life events.” Trying to get social tolerance out of the biomedical view is at the very minimum not effective, and possibly counterproductive.
It sends the message that your sympathy has to be earned.
Our Puritan forefathers believed that disease was an indication of sin; a family that caught scarlet fever had deserved it because of sinful acts and should be shunned. Even in elementary school, I knew that was ridiculous. Obviously it is not true that if something bad has happened to you, you must deserve it. But unfortunately that attitude continues today, in the idea that people have to prove they deserve our sympathy. The default assumption is that people somehow deserve the bad things that have happened to them; only if you can prove your blamelessness by never listening to rap music (as with Michael Brown) or having made any previous mistakes (as with the woman who was arrested for leaving her children in the car during a job interview), then and only then can you have our sympathy.
There’s a similar idea at work by destigmatizing mental illness by encouraging people to see it as a disease. Essentially, you’re saying “Don’t worry, they’re not responsible, they are sin-free, so it’s okay to feel sorry for them.” The most important reason not to use the biogenetic justification is that it’s morally weak and insulting to boot. You don’t need a reason to accept someone’s suffering as valid or invalid; just respect their humanity.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this article, most people offer up the mental illness as disease as a defense against those who are insensitive. But the truth is that you don’t need a reason to sympathize with someone, and you don’t need to offer reasons to someone who has indicated an irrational prejudice.
Some people are just jerks. You don’t need a reason to tell them to stop being jerks.