how not to treat mental illness.
Trigger warning: ableism, sexual assault.
I keep coming across two attitudes towards those with mental health issues, both of which cloak themselves as progressive, yet are incredibly ableist in their implications.
The first is that people with ill mental-health are out of control. They’re incapable of being reasoned with, incapable of being rational agents, and ergo incapable of being held accountable. This paints us all as crazed maniacs who are a danger to everyone at all times. Essentially, it lacks nuance.
The implications of this are severe. It means our contributions to discussions and in fact to the world are ignored (after all, they ARE completely illogical). It means where we do make bad decisions, say bad things, and even be cruel or abusive to the people we care about, we’re not held accountable. Nobody tries to help us. Instead, we’re just seen as beyond help. Nothing will change until we’re better (if ever we are) and that’s just a matter for the professionals. It’s not as if support networks, allies, and the faith people invest in us are ever helpful.
Once I was sexually assaulted by a man. It had a pretty terrible impact on my life (I offset thinking about how much it has fucked me up by thinking ‘but at least it made me an anarchist’). People defended him by saying that he ‘wasn’t well’ and that he’d ‘always been that way’. This kind of behaviour, this unwillingness to hold mentally ill people to account for their actions gives a green light to abusive, but ill, people. Mental illness can be a reason for many terrible things those with mental health problems do, but it must not become an excuse.
Don’t treat us like we’re incapable. We are not.
Conversely, you get the complete denial/ignoring of someone’s mental health. This leads to a lack of sensitivity, and judgement without context. This attitude ignores how profoundly a mental illness can affect someone’s life.
Essentially, a middle-ground needs to be recognised, because both of these extremes are not only dangerous but offensive to those with ill mental-health. The difference between differing mental health problems needs to be recognised. Someone suicidal will act differently from someone with an anxiety disorder. Their friends, family, and broader support networks need to recognise the specific issues said person has, the specific support they need, and the specific ways in which their mental illness manifests itself.
It requires people to be perceptive, it requires people to be forgiving but also for them sometimes to be harsh. It’s difficult, but until people with mental illnesses aren’t treated either like non-human crazed entities, or have their battle with their own brain ignored, we’ll never get anywhere in creating a safe environment for both those with mental health problems and those around them.