Can We Stop Blaming Mental Illness?

If you ask the average gun owner what to do about the gun problem in America, it’s not a gun problem—it’s a mental illness problem. Motivation for white right-wing terrorist attacks has been pinned on mental illness. On the other side of the political fence, mental illness is becoming the rallying cry for people denouncing President Trump’s erratic behavior in office and at press conferences. It seems everyone is bringing up mental illness whenever someone exhibits abnormal or harmful behavior.

Now, I’m not trying to talk about gun problems, or problems with right-wing politics, or problems with our president. I’m actually trying to talk about the mental health problem. Mental illness is used so often as an explanation that we frequently forget that it hasn’t been fully explored as a question. There’s a stigma surrounding it. People are scared of it. And I think that that stigma and fear stem largely from the failure to distinguish between mental illness and untreated mental illness.

I actually have a serious mental illness: bipolar disorder. It’s serious enough to legally be classified as a disability by the American government. Studies show that at least 11% of us succeed in killing ourselves, and many more lives are wrecked due to its ill effects. And yet, with effective treatment, people with bipolar disorder can go on to live very normal lives. I’m thirteen years into a successful web development career, and I’ve been happily married for almost twelve years. I don’t think anyone would put me in the same category as a mass shooter.

So when I see people describe a terrorist or our unpopular President as “clearly mentally ill,” it lumps me in the same category as them. And, honestly, it hurts. There are times when an untreated mental illness is actually to blame, and there are times when someone just wants to discredit whomever they’re talking about; but either way, the people in question have little to nothing in common with me.

Right now, if it slips out somehow that I have a mental illness, there are people who will be understanding, but there are also people whose minds immediately go to every bad news story they’ve seen blaming mental illness. I’ve seen discrimination from democrats and republicans, grocery store workers and doctors. It’s everywhere. And it’s perpetuated by flippant and ignorant claims about our medical conditions.

If you’re going to discuss mental illness as a cause for anything, make sure of two things. One, make sure you’ve done the research and know what you’re talking about. False claims of mental illness do not help. Two, make sure you specify untreated mental illness unless you’re certain that the individual was being properly treated—and even then, realize that the treatment was not working.

And if you’re going to claim mental illness as a cause for a major problem, you have an obligation to look at solutions for the mental health problem in America. If you think mental illness is causing the gun problem, you have an obligation to fight for accessible medical care for people who need it. If you blame mental illness for a major leader’s erratic behavior, you have an obligation to fight against the stigma that has prevented him from getting effective treatment, if that is indeed the cause.

I look forward to the day when mental illness is viewed in the public eye much like diabetes: an unfortunate and serious, but ultimately treatable and manageable medical condition. Once that is accomplished, we will no longer have to fear telling our employers or significant others about our medical condition, or deal with people who think we’re unstable even when there’s no evidence of that in our behavior. I sincerely hope that day comes soon.

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