“Talking Crazy:” The Controversial Video Trying to Change Our Mental Health Language

Trigger Warning: Ableist Language

Adam’s Place is a small non-profit advocacy group with a mission I can stand behind: “To debunk the myths of mental illness through word, art, and education.” I, like many others, became aware of the organization this week through their most recent YouTube video, which has been given positive coverage by a handful of fellow advocacy groups, most notably Bring Change 2 Mind. The short video was shared with me by a close friend and mental health advocate, who prefaced it with a simple “Tell me what you think of this.”

I had a bad feeling about the video immediately upon seeing its’ title: “Talking Crazy: Breaking the Silence About Mental Illness.” The subtitle was promising: after all, ‘breaking the silence’ is a key part of what I do as an advocate, and I firmly believe that opening a conversation about mental health is the first and most important event in a chain reaction leading to a world where people have access to and willingly use the resources they need.

What I was stuck on was “crazy.” I’ve written in previous posts about my thoughts about the word, but it seems appropriate to expound upon them here. In my early days of advocating, I was a staunch enforcer of the social rule that the word “crazy” was not to be used in my presence, ever. “Crazy,” I would explain, is a word that attaches the harmful stereotypes surrounding mental illness to the people, events, objects, and concepts that the word is used to describe. It’s an adjective that refers not only to the absurd, the inexplicable, and the bizarre, but the laughable, the dangerous, and the outright wrong: all things that, of course, I didn’t and still don’t want mental illness to be viewed as.

My views on the word have changed, if only slightly. After a year of developing a reputation as “the guy who won’t let you say ‘crazy'” (ask my friends; they’ll tell you), I began to examine what my actual problem was with the word. What I decided was that my efforts to banish the word from the lexicon were, though well-intentioned, a bit wasteful. Yes, it is true that “crazy” is an ableist slur, used to oppress people who have, or are perceived to have, any form of mental illness. It is a word that is, I still feel, never to be used to describe any person. To do so is simply dehumanizing. However, I no longer feel the concern I once felt about using “crazy” to describe, for example, a hectic day at work. If you want to say that you just made the craziest game-winning touchdown, or that you have a crazy amount of homework, I’m not going to stop you. That kind of policing is, to me, a distraction from taking real steps toward changing the mental health conversation.

That said, I was very shocked by what I heard in “Talking Crazy.” “Crazy people are everywhere,” the narrator tells us. “I’m not saying that to scare you. If anything, I hope it will encourage you.” These words are accompanied by an image of a group of smiling people, each labelled by either a diagnosis (schizophrenia, major depression, OCD, bipolar) or an ill-formed punchline (“likes Justin Bieber”). Throughout the uncomfortable four minutes, the narrator continues to refer to “crazy people,” while asserting that not everyone is part of this category. His key goal, it seems, is to justify and encourage the use of the word in our discussions of mental health. He argues that “mental illness” is a cold and clinical phrase, while “crazy” is conversational, and inclusive in meaning. His analogy (which I find flimsy) is the word “love,” which is almost infinite in its versatility in the vernacular.

What it comes down to is an attempt to ameliorate the word “crazy.” Much like slurs such as “bitch” or the N-word have been reclaimed and redefined by the groups they are used to oppress, this video aims to “take back” crazy, and make something positive of it. I understand this premise: the implication is that introducing “crazy” into our conversations about our own mental health might bring some levity to what is often a dark circumstance, or even help us to accept that mental health struggles are a part of all of our lives. The way it’s presented here, though, is unsettling. Referring to “crazy people” the way this video does creates the Us vs. Them mentality that is at the heart of mental health stigma: that is, the false notion that there are people who are crazy, and people who are not. Everyone exists on the mental health spectrum. There is no line of distinction that can be made between someone who is “crazy” and someone who is not, and for the narrator of this video to have done so is both off-putting and offensive.

Beyond that, there’s a big difference between “crazy” and words that have been ameliorated by other marginalized or oppressed groups. Those words are attached to groups that exist by shared Identity. Sociologically, historically, and culturally, race and gender are generally considered capital-I Identities. I don’t mean to say that anyone is defined by race or gender. I am aware that many people choose not to identify with any race or gender, and that many people who do feel no connection between their race and gender and who they are as a human being. What I am saying though, is that the long history of categorizing and creating hierarchies based on race and gender have created communities that seek and gain empowerment through their deeply-connected nature.

Mental health forms a very different community. While mental health and illness, by their very nature, have the potential to be intrinsically tied to a person’s sense of self, a diagnosis or a mental health label of any kind is not a capital-I Identity. The reason for this is well-being: building an Identity around a diagnosis is a massive hindrance to recovery. Calling oneself a “crazy person” has the potential not to facilitate acceptance, but to create an unhealthy obsession with one’s status as a person with mental illness. To put it plainly, I’m just not comfortable with that.

What bothers me most in “Let’s Talk Crazy” is the implication that the viewers will instantly accept the video’s premise. I’m not ready to live in a world where it’s okay to call me crazy just because that’s easier for people than saying “mental illness.” I’ll gladly continue to be open about my mental health experiences, even at the risk of being labelled and judged. I want the mental health conversation to happen, and to be framed in an educated manner, and to be accessible to everyone. What I will not accept is for my mental health to be discussed and understood on someone else’s terms. I am a person with bipolar disorder, but as long as I make the choice not to call myself “a crazy person”, I hope that you will make the choice not to call me one, either.

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A Dark Day on Twitter

Content Warning: non-graphic description of self-harm, no images

Sometimes the diverse, powerful, and easily-abused forces of the Internet will concoct something so disturbing that even those of us who have never lived in a world without it can’t quite fathom what hath been wrought.

Today, that came in the form of a Twitter Trending Topic, and possibly the worst one of all time.

“cutforbieber,” which, as of the time of this writing, has been trending since a little before 2:00PM EST Monday, is a Twitter hashtag which supposedly originated as a campaign for Justin Bieber fans to harm themselves as a statement against the pop star’s alleged drug use.

Pop sensation Justin Bieber has long polarized music listeners. Because of this, he often finds himself at the center of controversies he never asked for.

Complex Magazine (linked page does not currently contain additional triggering content, but this is subject to change) broke the story that the trend was actually started as a hoax by 4Chan, a “bulletin board” site on the cruelest corner of the Internet. It’s unclear, though, how many people have actually self-harmed today as a direct or indirect result of this trending topic.

What disturbs me most was that the 4Chan member who originated the idea was actively and admittedly attempting to persuade young girls to self-harm. This kind of disregard for the seriousness of cutting and similar behaviors is astounding, and must be, albeit to lesser degrees, pretty widespread, for the topic to have reached the levels it did in the first place.

The trending topic is filled with tweets mocking cutting and people who cut, and others expressing anger, even hatred, for the girls who have ostensibly harmed themselves as part of the campaign. Their anger is dangerously misdirected, and exists in a contradictory culture where many young people express frustration with people who “cut for attention,” while just as many others romanticize and glorify images of self-harm on blogging sites like Tumblr.

The fact is that the ensuing attention is, for many, a factor that plays a major role in their self-harm. Their actions often serve as a signal to others that they are in desperate need of help when other methods haven’t worked. No actual self-harm should be immediately met  with outright disgust, especially when the psychological and emotional circumstances surrounding it are not known. Sometimes, like in this case, the cultural circumstances are the ones that merit our disgust.

But disgust, of course, it wasteful unless it’s accompanied with action. Action needs to be taken against the individuals who started the trend, and 4Chan needs to take responsibility about the dangers of allowing this kind of activity to take place. Justin Bieber and Twitter need to speak out about the topic. Please continue to educate yourself and others about the significance and seriousness of self-harm, and speak out when you hear ignorant speech about self-harm.

When Celebrities Talk About Their Mental Health

About two weeks ago, David Letterman became one of the latest celebrities to publicly talk about mental health struggles. In an appearance on This Morning, the legendary late-night host and recent Kennedy Center honoree recounted his long journey to control his depression. Not only was his honesty courageous, but some of the details he shared were a stigma-fighters’ dream.

David Letterman recently spoke publicly about his depression for the first time.

Letterman talked about his reluctance to seek medical treatment, and was very clear about the difference between the depression and anxiety he’s faced and the everyday emotional difficulties that are a part of everyone’s lives. On the topic of depression, Letterman was sincere and eloquent.

As I continue to emphasize, mental illness is still highly stigmatized, and most people aren’t able to openly discuss it. For reasons ranging from a lack of information to generations of socialization to fear, the mental health conversation just isn’t always happening, and that silence is damaging. Failing to freely and honestly discuss our mental health can hold us back from healthy relationships, harm our self-esteem, and prevent us from getting necessary help.

Celebrity comings-out like Letterman’s are good news for the mental health community for a variety of reasons.

1. They put mental health in the news. Every news outlet, high or low, has use for a celebrity story, so and especially engaging one will get plenty of play. As we know, the more we hear something talked about in the media, the more comfortable we’ll feel talking about it.

2. They provide inspiration to other people with similar struggles. I, for example, personally admire Demi Lovato. She overcame illness to return to a career through which she serves as a highly visible role model, particularly to young women. She’s very active as an advocate for mental health, and her story is one of hope.

3. They provide a face to misunderstood issues and concepts. The fact that mental health affects everyone’s life is often not fully understood, especially because it’s not always as concrete as physical health. Hearing about real, personal experiences with mental health helps us to better comprehend it.

4. They can disprove stereotypes. Media images of people with mental illness have long relied on stereotypes: “crazy eyes,” unkempt appearances, a tendency toward violence, social ineptitude, and a dangerously charming smile are among the characteristics we see on a high proportion of media portrayals of people with mental illness. When successful, talented, and well-liked people come forward to talk about their own mental health struggles, we learn that the stereotypes are far from reality.

I should clarify, though, that I don’t feel that any person should feel obligated to publicly talk about their mental health. Mental health is a deeply personal matter, and the line between talking about it with a support system and talking about it publicly is not a fine one.

I do feel, though, that people in the public eye should be aware that they’re in a position of influence. They should be aware of the good they can do by speaking out about the causes that are important to them, especially those cause to which they can lend a more personal touch. I would encourage such people who are able and ready to talk about their mental health to do so. The courage of those who have already done so is appreciated and commended.

Mental Health in the Media: Worst of 2012

Content Warning: mentions of suicide

I can’t deny that the major portrayals of mental health in the media have come a long way. We’re seeing accurate, sensitive, and responsible looks at mental health and illness across genres, and it’s thrilling to see the silence broken in such an impactful and visible way.

But we’re not quite there yet. Here, in no particular order, are some of the most misguided and unfortunate portrayals of mental health that have crossed my desk in the past twelve months.

“Are You Happy Now?” – SpongeBob SquarePants

Areyouhappynow.PNG

In this episode of the long-running Nickelodeon cartoon, the cantankerous Squidward copes with feelings resembling depression after realizing that he doesn’t have a “happiest memory.” The episode features two blatant and disturbing suicide sight gags, a far cry from the more subtle humor of the show’s early days. Mocking suicide is never appropriate, and doing so alongside a visual representation, on a children’s show no less, is unconscionable.

“Lids” – Saturday Night Live

And while we’re on that particular subject, SNL committed a similar crime this year when it, too, joked about suicide in a sketch. After a faux-PSY performed a rendition of “Gangnam Style,” host Seth MacFarlane, as a Lids employee, said, “Man, if you’re not in a better mood after that, you’d might as well just hang yourself in the stockroom.”

Bipolar – Chinkie Brown ft. Lil Scrappy

The sultry singer tells a lover goodbye. Why? Because he might “be bipolar… Bye, polar, bye.”

Pitch Perfect

“Kill yourselves,” charming villain-turned-love-interest Bumper Allen says to his female a-ca-mpetitors. And that’s supposed to be a punchline.

that one line in Perks of Being a Wallflower

The film adaptation of Perks was outstanding, and I hate to nitpick here, but there was one moment that was really didn’t sit well with me. You guessed it, it’s Emma Watson’s non sequitur “I love bulimia” line. I don’t understand what a line like that, which makes light of a serious eating disorder with absolutely no explanation (if we later found out, for example, that Watson’s character was actually dealing with bulimia and was using attempted humor to cope), was even doing in a film about youth mental health. It’s been four months, and I’m still waiting for an explanation.

“Sheer Madness” – Raising Hope

Jimmy’s ex-girlfriend is back in town, and he realizes that he likes her more now that she’s off her mood stabilizers. Because she’s a lot more fun.

Jacintha Saldanha death – almost everyone

This one speaks for itself. After the death of Jacintha Saldanha by apparent suicide, countless news agencies speculated that her death was the direct result of the infamous “Royal Radio Prank” of which she was an unsuspecting victim. By pushing blame for her death onto a single isolated incident, the countless tabloid-style stories that ran about Saldanha trivialized both the mental health aspects contributing to the tragedy and the seriousness of suicide. News coverage of suicide tends to mystify the act and depict it as inevitable, rather than offering insight into prevention or showing even the least bit of respect for the life of the deceased.

Lark Vorhies rumors-  People and Entertainment Tonight

In October 2012, when People Magazine published a story based on interviews they conducted with former Saved By the Bell star Lara Vorhies and some people close to her, they took an angle that the actress wasn’t expecting, claiming that Vorhiees had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Voorhies, 38, would frequently stop mid-sentence and stare off, often mumbling to herself or to others who weren’t there,” the magazine reported in its sensationalist and ill-informed story about Vorhiees’ “sad spiral.”

It got messier when Entertainment Tonight picked up the story, and aired a series of pieces centered around an interview that was, as one online commentator put it, “bitchy.” And I couldn’t agree more. Vorhies was visibly flustered by the interviewer’s accusational tone, irrelevant line of questioning (“Do you hear voices?” she asked, apropos of nothing), and intrusive aim of making the actress out herself.

The exploitation continued when ET had the interview analyzed by a “respected psychiatrist” (with Lark’s permission, they said) who, thankfully, stated that he was unable to speculate on her diagnosis based on the interview.

The story was picked up elsewhere on the web, where some bloggers implied that Vorhies’ idiosyncratic manner of speaking, characterized by misused words and run-on sentences, was proof that her alleged diagnosis was valid.

Honorable Mention: American Horror Story:Asylum

As the National Alliance on Mental illness opined in October, the latest season of American Horror Story, set in a psychiatric hospital in the 1960s, just might be too over-the-top to be stigmatizing. Sure, there’s nothing positive about the ongoing ‘trend’ of casting mental healthcare as the setting for horror entertainment, but no one watching the series is likely to mistake its events and characters for mental health reality. The series perpetuates existing stereotypes about mental health and violence, and the nature of psychiatric hospitals, but is produced in such a way that viewers with even an ounce of media literacy will understand that what they’re watching has no connection to the reality of mental health.

That said, the coverage of the show in the entertainment news media was probably more stigmatizing than Asylum itself. Headlines like “New Cast Goes Nuts” and “Back to the Loony Bin” offer some examples of the mental health slurs and clichés that writers on the TV beat chose in discussing the program.

Does the Trigger Warning Have a Place in the Mass Media?

Anyone reading this probably has a sense of what a trigger warning is, but in case you don’t, it’s a brief note that some writers choose to place before materials that pose a risk of negative psychological repercussions for the reader. Subject matter such as sexual assault, domestic violence, and self-harm all pose numerous emotional risks for people with experience with these traumas. A warning will typically read something like “Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault.”

On a blog, trigger warnings essentially give readers a chance to stop and decide whether they’re emotionally ready to read a particular piece. Could this format translate to the mass media?

Trigger warnings are especially popular on blogging sites like Tumblr and Feministing, but have yet to gain any major attention outside that realm. Even within the blogosphere, they’re not without controversy. They’ve been used for years, but there isn’t any real agreement on the best way to write a trigger warning, exactly what content should be preceded by one, or even whether they’re effective. So I may be jumping the gun a little by suggesting that it’s worthwhile to explore the expansion their use into television, film, and print, but I think it merits consideration.

The closest thing in major American mass media to a trigger warning is the “Viewer Discretion” advisement that appears before television programs with violent or sexual content. These, of course, don’t exactly have the same purpose at heart.

By bombarding the senses, television and film are particularly powerful media for risking the kind of psychological reaction that trigger warnings serve to prevent. Again, trigger warnings aren’t just about trying not to upset or offend someone: it’s an issue of personal safety. When used on blogs, trigger warnings are a courtesy extended to readers as a means of protecting them.

The fact that trigger warnings are a matter of common courtesy, rising to ubiquity in the internet’s typical grassroots way, leads one to wonder if, and how, they could be regulated in the mass media. Should networks, publishers, and studios decide for themselves whether to use them, or this a matter for FCC and MPAA involvement?

And where do trigger warnings belong? How should they look and be written? How do we keep the term and concept from being misused and misunderstood?

Please leave your comments!

Royce White: The most important story in sports?

Royce White tweet

When Royce White was picked in the first round of the 2012 NBA draft by the Houston Rockets, he already had years of hype behind him, having led the Cyclones in points, assists, rebounds, steals, and blocked shots during his sophomore years of college, and carrying his team to a perfect record in his senior year of high school. Now the Rockets are 25 games into the regular season, and their potential new star hasn’t played a single minute of a single game, instead becoming the poster boy for the complicated relationships between mental health and employment and mental health and masculinity.

Even before the draft, White came forth to admit that he is living with an anxiety disorder, becoming the first prospect to do so, according to Sports Illustrated reporter Pablo S. Torre. The potential NBA superstar did so, he said, because he wanted to “start helping people.” If bringing light to an issue in a community that’s never really talked about it before constitutes helping people, and it does, then he’s definitely accomplished what he set out to. But is he bringing real change?

Royce White was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder a few years ago. Let’s just say he can’t stop talking about it. Take a look at his Twitter. Read any of the (very few) interviews he’s given. His goal is one that he shares with myself and many others, including most of my readers: raising awareness. And he’s definitely done that. The high-pressure hyper-masculine world of sports, where mental health is almost never talked about, is talking about it now. The understanding that mental illness, like mental illness, is not a personal weakness or failure is being made, slowly.

I had the pleasure of meeting sports journalist Pablo Torre about a month ago and hearing him speak about the ways that sports culture feeds into mental health stigma. First, athletics and masculinity are almost synonymous. In both, people are expected to fight through the pain, revealing no emotion or fear. A man who shows signs of weakness or imperfection runs the risk of being seen as less of a man, and the same is true of an athlete. We see that physical injury is celebrated: an athlete who gets hurt and gets back on the field is a hero. The hit he took- his moment of fearlessness- is played again and again. The same is not possible in the case of mental illness; that “tangible proof”, which Torre described as “necessary” in the sports culture, simply doesn’t exist. This leaves fans, fellow athletes, and policymakers to create their own explanations: is the illness just an excuse, they wonder. A cry for pity or attention? A sign of weakness?

So for all the support that White is getting as an outspoken mental health advocate, there’s plenty of hate going around, too. And confusion. And well-meaning belittlement. And it begs the question: Is White really going about this the right way?

I’m 100% ready to give him the benefit of the doubt on his approach to raising awareness. I can’t say that I know how the Rockets are treating him, or how much effort is actually being made on both sides of the situation to come to an agreement about how White’s anxiety should be handled by the NBA. I’m in no position to say who’s right or wrong, but personal experience tells me that most employers and institutions, especially larger ones, are highly under-equipped to accommodate for mental health needs.

Which is why I’m troubled by unforgiving reports like this one that accuse White of “playing the martyr” with his diagnosis, and gives full credit to the NBA. “Most teams in the NBA would never give White this kind of special treatment,” the writer says. But what White is asking for isn’t “special” treatment; it’s fair treatment. He’s asking for mutual respect, and the understanding that he’s operating under limitations. He’s asking that the NBA implement a protocol for players living with diagnoses like his.

To be fair, though, he’s been vague about what this “protocol” really means. This piece, which also displays some pro-NBA bias, makes light of White’s anxiety while making much of his Tweeting. It’s true that the athlete hasn’t been particularly specific about his expectations from the NBA, but again, we here on the outside of the situation don’t really have the necessary information to judge whether White and the NBA have been fair to each other. One thing we do know is that his team has demanded that he see their therapist, rather than his own, who he has been seeing for years.

The Royce White situation has some people wondering: are certain careers outside of the reasonable realm of possibility for people with certain conditions? As a mental health advocate, my instant answer is no. But many insist that the risk should not have been taken on drafting White. We all have limitations for which we must account in any choice we make in life, but these distinctions are ours to make. Whether Royce White is currently capable of fulfilling his contractual obligations to the NBA is not something I can know, but I applaud him for his courage in openly discussing his diagnosis. I sincerely hope that his story leads to greater workplace accommodations for people living with mental illness, and that, should playing for the Houston Rockets remain his dream, he is able to fulfill it.

I Watched C-SPAN Once

… or, What Our Representatives in Congress are Saying About Mental Health

Reps. Grace Napolitano (D-CA) and Tim Murphy (R-PA) appeared on C-SPAN’s Washington Today to discuss the state of federal mental health programs post-Newtown. The two Congressional House representatives are the co-chairs of the Mental Health Caucus, a 89% Democrat faction of Congress working to educate and advocate to their colleagues and the the nation on issues related to mental health. The one-hour segment, in which the two congresspersons answered questions from callers and the host whose name I have no interest in looking up, left me with mixed feelings.

First things first, I think Grace Napolitano is awesome. She drafted the Mental Health in Schools Act of 2011, which was referred to a congessional committee on February 17 of that year, where it’s been sitting around collecting co-sponsors (56 so far, all Democrat), waiting for a possible vote. She’s outspoken about mental health issues, and incredibly well-educated about them. All things considered, she’s one of the best allies we’ve got.

Tim Murphy, with three decades of experience as a psychologist behind him, also provides the mental health expertise that Congress needs if it’s going to make any progress.

While bipartisan consensus on the importance of mental health has not yet been achieved, the two co-chairs were in agreement that mental health services are not meeting our current need. $4.5 billion have been cut from state mental health budgets in the past five years, and while some of this has been the result of financial necessity, it is possible to work within budget limitations without cheating those in need, the representatives contend.

I applaud Napolitano for mentioning and explaining stigma. She blamed the fear and confusion that surround mental health for Congress’ failure to get together on the issue. She clearly had a greater understanding of that fact than did Murphy, who repeatedly implied that violence was the primary reason for the importance of mental healthcare.

Obviously, talking about violence was inevitable: the Newtown tragedy was, after all, the focus of the discussion. But Napolitano was able to bring viewer attention to the “big picture,” so I was instantly turned off by Murphy’s unwillingness to do the same. As I said in a previous post, tragedies like that in Newtown have a way of making people “miss the point” in the national mental health conversation, so I’m skeptical of any media coverage of Newtown insisting on discussing mental health just because of Newtown.

Murphy expressed that he’s very interested in taking a line-by-line look at the federal mental health budget. Taking a very serious look at where money earmarked for mental health is probably absolutely necessary at this point. Beds are closing, employers aren’t always able to provide insurance coverage for mental health services, educators and police officers who deal with mental health every day don’t have the proper training. It’s possible, if not definite, that the money we’re already spending can mitigate some of this if we get it sorted out and headed in the right direction. Whether this will actually happen, though, is anyone’s guess.

Other areas of reform mentioned in the interview included prisons, where the majority of inmates need, but don’t receive, psychological services. The complicated interplay of biology, education, parents, media, and government in mental health was briefly discussed as an area needing more understanding and research. Above all, the chairpersons agreed, the public needs to be educated.

That an active mental health caucus in Congress even exists is a positive sign. That there are officials voting on our laws who care about mental health, and know what they’re talking about, should help me and advocates like me sleep a little better at night. The changes we need can only happen, though, if we all want them for the right reasons.

(Watch the Washington Today interview here: http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/RPAR)

(Track Napolitano’s Mental Health in Schools Act (HR-751) here: http://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/112/hr751)

Open Letter to Wayne LaPierre

Mr. Wayne LaPierre:

I am writing to express my astonishment and disgust toward your words in today’s NRA press conference. While I, like hundreds of millions of others, share your sense of grief and confusion in these days following the tragedy in Newtown, I am especially concerned and hurt by the insensitive, dehumanizing, and altogether toxic language you used in your commentary today.

In the year since I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I’ve become very active as an advocate for mental health issues. Many of my friends have mental health diagnoses, and I’ve seen firsthand the variety of ways that mental illness affects people’s lives. As difficult as these health struggles have been for so many of us, the greatest challenge that many of us face is stigma.

Stigma is social disapproval that results in fear, shame, silence, and prejudice. People with mental illness face stigma every day. We are thought of, and treated as, violent, inferior, and fodder for mockery. Perceptions like this come from miseducation, generations of socialization, and simple assumption.

In your statement today, you lamented that the federal government has yet to a comprehensive database of people with mental illness. This is necessary, you implied, so that we can know who the “killers” are.

The problem with your suggestion, Mr. LaPierre, is that we live in a society where people with mental illness are often already marginalized and made to feel ‘different.’ The vast majority of people with mental illness are fully capable of living full and successful lives, but that fact is lost on people like yourself who truly see us as Different. Loss of self-esteem and social isolation, both of which are already a part of life with mental illness, result directly from the stigma. More dangerously, stigma leads to reluctance to seek treatment.

Furthermore, mental illness, like any other illness or health condition, is not a character flaw. It is not a personal failure. It is not something that one brings upon oneself. To place someone on a database of potential “killers,” likely holding that person back from acquiring a job, adopting a child, or living a comfortable life, because a health condition beyond that person’s control is unconscionable. What you are suggesting would threaten to needlessly ruin the lives of tens of thousands.

Not once in your statement did you mention the need for treatment and support for people with mental illness. Rather, you called us “killers,” when we’re more likely to be victims of violent crime than perpetrators. You used words like “monsters,” “deranged,” and “evil,” words that dehumanize and demean, words with unfortunate and long-reaching cultural associations with mental illness. These are words that oppress, and they hold back progress.

I’m not asking you for an apology, or even a response. I only hope that you consider this letter the next time you publicly discuss issues of mental health.

Jared Wolf
12.21.12

(To readers: the full transcript of LaPierre’s statement is currently on nra.org)

Our Mental Health Conversation: Post Newtown

Tragedies like the shooting in Newtown tend to lead to discussion of mental health. While it seems appropriate that the silence be broken on this issue, it concerns me that this is often the only context in which the conversation is happening.

Mental healthcare needs to be readily available and accessible to everyone, and that need is clearly not being met. That’s a crucial element of the conversation, and probably the part that comes up the most. What’s being lost, though, is that ‘everyone’ means everyone. It’s not for the “crazy” few, or the “dangerous” Other. It makes me cringe to violence and mental illness treated as synonymous. I think that a willingness to acknowledge that mental health affects all of us, that we’re all human and flawed and need help, is missing from the conversation.

Hindsight is 20/20, and so the media are quick to comment on the warning signs Lanza displayed in the time leading up to the incident. We don’t know much about Lanza’s mental health history, and while I’m not comfortable with any kind of specific speculation, it’s obvious that he wasn’t well. Nobody could have definitively known far ahead of time what he was planning to do, but it should have been apparent years ago that he needed help. I don’t know what attempts, if any, to seek help for Adam were made, or why they did not succeed, but it’s likely that some combination of the typical attitudes toward treatment: that it’s ineffective/unnecessary, that it’s “for someone else, not me/my child/my friend/people in a nice town like this” was at play, as well as the fact that even people who want treatment often go through a slow and frustrating process to get it.

The conversation about mental health needs to address that mental healthcare and support are necessary for reasons that extend miles beyond preventing horrific incidents like this one. Yes, seeing an end to mass shootings is a potential best-case outcome to improving the availability of, and public willingness to accept, mental healthcare. But we can’t simplify the Newtown shooting and similar events to matters of mental illness (and vice versa – we can’t equate mental illness with Lanza’s acts), and to do so only further distorts our cultural associations with mental health, perpetuating those harmful attitudes.

This is obviously an extremely complex issue, and what I’ve written here is just an introductory look at an idea about which I intend to write much more. The bottom lines are that:

1. The mental healthcare system is not equipped to meet demand. We cannot allow anyone’s ability to live a fulfilled and productive life slip through the cracks.

2. Changing the general cultural perception of mental health is a major obstacle in achieving progress in mental health treatment. We as individuals need to honestly and fully address the way we see and talk about mental health: what stereotypes are we aware of? To what degree do we believe them? Is this affecting the way we see and treat others? Does it affect the way I see and react to my own struggles? Why is this harmful? It is everyone’s responsibility to work toward a better personal understanding of mental health.