Trigger warning: saneism and hate crimes. Also I use the f-word.
There’s a sentiment that I see and hear a lot, often expressed by liberals who have an unjustifiably optimistic view of humanity, that offends me more than any number of slurs against people with mental disorders. This is the idea that “anyone who could do something like that to another person must be mentally ill.”
“Something like that” could be any number of things. Killing someone. Torturing someone. Being racist or fascist. Today’s example (which actually happened several years ago but just came back into the news because a judge in Florida decided it wasn’t actually a crime) is several prison guards locking a black man with schizophrenia in the shower and running near-boiling water on him for hours until he died. I’m not going to provide a link to any of the articles because it’s that disturbing; Google if you want the grisly details.
So I came across this story last night, and because apparently it wasn’t upsetting enough to read about another hate crime against a mentally ill person being dismissed as not worthy of prosecution, I read the comments. And of course there was that person (there’s always at least one) saying, “Who really has the mental illness in this situation?”
To which I respond, THE PERSON WITH FUCKING SCHIZOPHRENIA.
Let’s get something straight. Mental illness is an actual thing. There are specific symptoms that lead to specific diagnoses. There are detectable brain differences that can be studied. Genetics play a role – often a very significant role.
You don’t just get to decide that anyone who displays behavior you don’t like or don’t understand has a psychiatric condition, any more than you get to decide that anyone who takes a long time in a public bathroom has a colostomy bag. I mean they could, but unless you have actual concrete evidence of that, you probably shouldn’t assume it or assert it as a fact to other people.
This includes, by the way, Antisocial Personality Disorder. Many people are in the habit of casually diagnosing everyone with despicable behavior, or anyone who’s an asshole, as having APD (or “psychopathy” as they’re often not educated enough on the matter to know the current diagnostic term). Nope, sorry. Unless someone has actually been diagnosed with APD by a professional, you don’t get to decide that they have it just because you don’t like or understand their behavior.
The assumption that people are fundamentally good and thus all cruelty must be caused by a psychiatric condition is 1) delusional (though not in a technical diagnostic sense) and 2) saneist. It perpetuates stereotypes about mentally ill people being violent horrible human beings while letting all sane people off the hook for their behavior – even when they commit a hate crime against a person with a diagnosed mental illness. It makes “mental illness” itself a slur.
In reality, there are many cruel and hateful tendencies in human nature. These tendencies are not the same as mental illness. Many people with bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and the like are very gentle and empathic people. I speak from experience, of which I have plenty because I know a lot of people with these conditions and I am one. While we may have violent outbursts when symptomatic, it’s the exception rather than the rule. It’s not who we are in our day to day lives.
Conversely, there are many people who do NOT have a psychiatric condition, who are bullies in their day to day lives, who are selfish, who like to hurt others or at least aren’t very bothered by it, and who are very susceptible to peer pressure. Did every person who participated in slavery or the Holocaust have an undiagnosed psychiatric condition? Or for that matter, every person in middle school who threw rocks at me or jeered?
I volunteered at downtown shelters. Homeless people with schizophrenia aren’t the ones jumping people, they’re the ones getting jumped. Or boiled to death in showers. It’s usually the person with the mental illness who is bullied and hurt by the normal folks.
But people with psychiatric conditions can also be assholes. We can also be mean, and selfish, and petty, and cruel. Usually this is NOT because of our mental illness. Usually it’s because WE’RE FUCKING HUMAN. Yes, all the nasty stuff you normals do, we crazies can do too. But it’s not because we’re different from you. It’s because we’re the same as you.