I feel very strongly about this, so please understand the strong language I am using is deliberate and my anger is justified.
We are seeing an increasing cycle of high-profile media stories linking an act of random multiple shooting to an allegation that the perpetrator is “mentally ill.” These instances come faster and faster, and the President has referred to a cycle of “every three or four months.” I have no idea if there are more such shootings as America becomes more unequal, poorer, harsher, more racist and more misogynist, more aggressive internationally and willing to kill civilians in order to impose its own version of law and order on other countries.
Or, if organizations like Torrey’s “Treatment Advocacy Center” have simply planted enough lies in the media that such stories are now self-generating. Given the huge numbers of people taking psychiatric drugs (for which a diagnosis is applied by the prescribing doctor) and the hindsight that shapes people’s impressions of the shooter as “unstable,” a “ticking time bomb” and other demonizing labels based on the concept of “violent mental illness” it should always be possible to find such stories on schedule.
The President has done serious and unforgivable damage to the country and to people living with psychiatric libels, by endorsing the further libel that we are prone to violence and thus warrant greater scrutiny of our behavior, greater restrictions on our civil liberties, and being brought under comprehensive control by the unaccountable and discriminatory policing and prison regime that is known as the mental health system. We have to understand that it is nothing more than a libel. It cannot be debated rationally, and every time we have tried to point out the the absence of evidence for a statistical linkage, these rational arguments have no effect; instead they almost seem to add fuel to the fire.
I want to point out something about how profiling works and why it is always wrong. It does not matter whether there is or is not a statistical linkage between a particular demographic and the likelihood that an individual will commit a crime. Profiling comes about because a demographic group is targeted, and they are targeted because of deep-seated prejudice that really sees that person as a subhuman bogeyman with superhuman strength needing to be controlled and kept at bay. We see this clearly with racial profiling – at least some of us do. This is why the George Zimmerman verdict and the continuing murders of African American men, women, girls and boys by police are not just individual tragedies but a horrifying mass murder committed systemically by a racist society.
It is no different with psychiatric profiling. We are targeted because of a persistent prejudice that comes from much the same place as racism: disability and race have always been the twin poles of eugenicist beliefs that treat some parts of a population as “useless eaters” worth exploiting and then throwing away. It doesn’t matter if disability is in the mind of the beholder – it always has been; there is always an overlap between a person experiencing unusual states of mind and the alienation from society that can result from this when it is not accommodated, and the alienation caused by misogyny, racism, class, and other ways we exclude each other. (For example, the famous Supreme Court case Buck v Bell allowed forced sterilization and libeled a family of women as “imbeciles”; whatever disabilities they might have had or not had, they were certainly poor.)
Neither the Nazis in their murderous agenda nor the current regime of concentration camps and exclusionary laws presided over by psychiatry cares if you identify as a person with a disability, as having a mental illness, as being unique or eccentric, or as being normal. The selection is made and you are sent to the left or the right. We are not being gassed now, but we are being murdered by restraints, by neuroleptics and electroshock, by police with guns and tasers.
I want us to clearly identify this for what it is – in my cultural reference, psychiatric profiling is no different from the blood libel that was manufactured against Jews to justify pogroms. I read stories about those times and am struck by the similarity in how people hunkered down, waited for it to pass, tried to reason with reasonable authorities, passed as gentile, strategized however they could to survive. A blood libel cannot be debated. Now in hindsight I hope that most people think the blood libel is ridiculous as well as offensive, but it was believed in its time and I’m sure there are bigots who still imagine this bogeyman in their fears.
I talked with two friends this week – I was saying that, now that the interpretation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities is almost entirely secured, we need to pay attention to positive measures: what do we want to see in a world that is remade with no forced psychiatry? If a government said to us, “OK, we will repeal the mental health laws and get rid of commitment and forced treatment – what else should we do to make sure people have what they need and are not discriminated against if they have unusual thoughts or are experiencing serious distress or crisis?” – what could we answer?
Both of my friends had a strong reaction that focused on the depth of hatred we are experiencing under the current system, that can make us feel as if we ourselves are not worthy as human beings. It is hard to acknowledge this – to take in society’s libel and not be strong enough to shrug it off is one of the edges we can fall off and get libeled as mentally ill – especially if we are female. It makes me angry. It makes us angry. And we shouldn’t have to take it any more.
It’s not a weakness or a vulnerability – we are damn strong to survive what we have, and those who haven’t would find the same strength within themselves if they were put in our shoes. (Note: not everyone agrees that those who survive are necessarily strong, and they have a point. I don’t mean to suggest that it is bad to be, or to feel, less than “damn strong” or that those who didn’t survive psychiatry are weak.) What we survive (from my notes of one of these conversations, which also included my partner and her contributions):
- Fucking with a person’s sense of self and how they are perceived in the world – this is infliction of mental suffering and amounts to torture.
- Systemic torture, because it is all callous experimentation: “you are a science project.” They give false, incomplete and misleading information (no *informed* consent) and fail to collect data on adverse effects that people actually experience. They give you medicine that they know nothing about themselves, and tell you what they think you need to know. They are treating us as subhuman, as if we don’t matter. This is because there is a control agenda in the mental health system, that is not there in the physical health system.
- Making somebody so “other” that you can do anything to them. It’s not only the acts of outright violence. When a parent hits their child, after a while all they have to do is look crossly at the child and the child is under control. They don’t have to go on beating a person, ripping off their fingernails, shooting them full of Thorazine every day. They don’t have to do much to put the person into a place where you’re so frightened you can’t be yourself any more.
- They’ve made me feel like I don’t belong in the world the way I am now. I think that’s unforgiveable.
This tells me again that every time our rights are more firmly recognized by the United Nations, we unpeel another layer in our own experience and ability to confront the extreme and egregious human rights violations against us. Progress is not linear, and – while I still think we need to envision the new world even while we are in the grip of the old – getting angry and refusing to accept what is dished out to us, defending ourselves and each other from retaliation, may be the next step.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.