Yes, I’m talking to you, oh person who is way too enlightened to ever deny white (or male, or heterosexual, etc.) privilege, and would never dream of chanting ‘All Lives Matter.’
I mean you, person who may have marched for a women’s right to choose (or at least heartily supports those who do), knows that drug testing for food stamps (or any other benefit) is not only offensive and classist but also a fool’s errand, and wouldn’t think twice about bringing your kids to the local Pride parade dressed in rainbows.
You are probably anti-death penalty, pro universal healthcare, at least a bit concerned about the environment, and couldn’t care less who smokes a little green. You’ve almost inevitably shared at least one ‘Daily Show’ clip or ‘Everyday Feminist’ blog on your social media feed (if you’re not too cool to do social media at all), and you’re completely horrified by Trump (and just about anything for which he stands). Was it you who shared that funny video about Canada running for president?
You… You more than anyone else… You are failing us.
When I venture out into the world (on-line or in real life), I can expect that – no matter where I land – finding someone who identifies as ‘liberal,’ ‘progressive,’ ‘leftist,’ and so on means I can reasonably express many of my own views and not expect to get strange looks or have to fight for my perspective. We can comfortably make make humorous remarks about the state of the world, and smile knowingly at one another. I can use terms like ‘systemic oppression’ and ‘social justice’ without having to explain what I mean, or arguing tiresomely about anyone’s ‘bootstraps’ and how they should just be yanking on them a little bit harder. And, should I come upon someone who stakes claim in those labels but is simply ill-informed on a particular issue, it’s fairly safe to assume that they will be open to being challenged, if for no other reason than wanting to live up to their political identity.
But, when it comes to psychiatric diagnosis, I can be almost equally as certain that anyone outside of my immediate field of work just won’t ‘get it,’ no matter where they stand on anything else. And not only won’t they get it, but they will often actively be one of the unwitting oppressive masses either through their inaction or worse.
Take the aforementioned ‘Everyday Feminism’ blog, for example. This is a site I might reasonably seek out for their witty and concise way of explaining almost all things on what I consider to be the ‘right side’ of social politics. But, take a quick gander at some of the highlights they’ve posted about so-called “mental illness”:
- 5 Ways Mental Illness Labels Have Helped Me (December, 2015) This article launches a relatively juvenile and misguided attack against people who dare suggest that psychiatric labels might be harmful.
- No, There Isn’t a Huge Crisis of Overdiagnosing Mental Illness and Disability and Here’s Why (November, 2015) This one literally… and I do mean literally… defends ‘Big Pharma’ (!!!), even if still with a somewhat critical tone. (“Big Pharma doesn’t need to convince healthy people they’re ill. They have enough sick people who genuinely need their expensive brand-name medication to take advantage of already!”)
- How Getting Diagnosed Schizoaffective Bipolar Helped Save My Life (August, 2015) This gem starts out with a list of possible mental health ‘treatments’, including Electroconvulsive Therapy (ECT – which it categorically denies causes any brain damage), and psychosurgery which it terrifyingly claims, “removes or destroys damaged brain tissue to change behavior.’ (Emphasis added.) Wait, what!? The depths of the myths that this one is swimming in – like the idea that anyone’s ever really been able to identify ‘damaged brain tissue’ and target it with psychosurgery – are staggering.
When our friendly neighborhood progressives over at Everyday Feminism are putting this stuff out, who needs enemies?! They not only don’t ‘get it,’ but seem to actively oppose and want to counter those who do. Could Big Pharma have gotten in the business of funding social justice blogs? Is one of their editors related to Tim Murphy? Those facts would at least help me make some sense out of all this. Otherwise, it just seems a little ironic (in the real, non-Alanis-Morisette-defined sense of the word) that people that quite specifically pride themselves on calling out systemic oppression would so quickly take on the costume of the oppressor without seeming to know it.
So, what gives? We need allies. We need them badly, and we need them now, but it seems no group is reliably inclined to rise to the occasion. To be clear, the point here really isn’t to condemn anyone who doesn’t identify as ‘liberal.’ If those on the conservative end of the spectrum seemed the more likely candidates from whom we might garner support, then I’d be writing about (and pleading with) them. After all, people do tend to be pulled not just by single issues, but by how they at least perceive they should lean in order to be consistent with their bigger picture, and right now I’m just looking for those I think should logically be easier to convince. But, in a country where some of the more traditionally-minded folks seem to still be arguing about whether or not the Confederate flag represents ‘hate’ (aka racism) or ‘history,’ or whether other types of systemic oppression are really a ‘thing’ anymore, doesn’t it seem only natural that we should expect that those who already fundamentally ‘get’ some of these basic concepts be the ones to stand up and help us out?
The problem – part of it, at least – really does seem to boil down to a failure to make the logical leap (however short the distance) between other types of systemic oppression (racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.) and that of the psychiatric variety. Sure, people talk about the ‘stigma’ of being ‘mentally ill’ all the time, but really what most of them mean is, ‘Would you please stop judging those poor people so they don’t feel ashamed to go get what we’ve decided is ‘the help they need’?’ (See also ‘Anti-Anti Stigma.’)
It’s not even occurring to most progressives to consider this issue within a framework of oppression, no matter how damn familiar that framework may be to them. And, so, they are lured into thinking that they’re being truest to their social justice(ish) roots if they argue for things like ‘parity’ in the healthcare system, without ever really considering the nature, efficacy and potential problems with the treatment (or treatment systems) to which they are fighting to create access and equality. They seem to have no idea that they may be directing people toward shortened lifespans, voicelessness and loss of rights without any real due process at all.
Many will blame the average liberal’s apathy and/or ignorance on all the myths and misinformation floating around out there and being bolstered by Big Pharma’s perpetual spending spree, and there’s something to that. However, just about every issue of institutionalized discrimination has been similarly embedded in our culture and monetary systems at one point or another. We can’t continue to hold blameless the individuals who remain blind for too much longer. Or, is failure to see systemic oppression a sort of ‘illness’ itself? (Apparently, this guy might argue so!)
For a long time now, I’ve had visions and fantasies of creating an enormous chart that identifies as many similarities as I can come up with related to experiences of oppression between individuals who’ve been in the psychiatric system and members of so many other marginalized groups (while also still respecting the differences). I’ve finally started work on that project in hopes that it might help some of us begin to cut through whatever veil it is that’s keeping people from seeing experiences in the mental health system in the same light. (I welcome anyone who wants to offer up ideas to do so in the comments section here or to e-mail me directly.)
I’m thinking of things like how so many people now recognize and rage on about (though by no means have done much to successfully correct) the injustices against people of color who are forced by a discriminatory legal system into the prison industrial complex, while those same people barely even take notice of those individuals forced and incarcerated within the psychiatric system based on similarly subjective and distorted diagnoses and ‘risk assessments.’ Or, how many people across various oppressed groups are deemed ‘acceptable’ for entertainment, but then shuffled out the door or ignored when the ‘real talk’ gets underway. (Think of how we are often used for our stories, but not truly heard beyond that.) There are so very many examples.
And, here’s a particularly personal one:
People of progressive (and ‘feminist’) mindsets have always been quick to assure me (and others who’ve been sexually assaulted) that we can’t be blamed for what happened to us, regardless of how we were dressed, how much we drank, or the places we put ourselves in. No, they declare that showing our bodies, refusing to disguise our breasts, walking down dark streets, or trusting men in our lives to not take advantage of our intoxicated states… these are no justification for what happened to us. And, they stand on ready to rise up in outrage toward anyone who might disagree.
Yet, often those very same people have been equally quick to blame the distress I experienced as a result of that abuse on a ‘mental illness’ caused (they said) by a chemical imbalance or other biological problem in my head. And, I want to be very clear about something at this point. Blaming the distress that resulted from the physical, emotional and sexual trauma I experienced on a brain illness effectively gives those who directly hurt me a pass.
Blaming me for the results of the act of rape bears no real difference from blaming me for the act itself – except that people tend to understand one within the framework of ‘sexism’ (systemic oppression) and the other within the framework of ‘mental illness’ (biological disease).
Yes, by calling ‘mental illness,’ these folks blamed me – the ‘victim’ – for the impact of the violence that I suffered. This is the very thing they tried so vehemently to counter when in a ‘sexism’ frame of mind. Why is this disconnect not more obvious to… everyone?
And, isn’t victim blaming – in any form – against the liberal’s ‘code of ethics’ or something?
I guess, at some point, I’m just hoping that if we can all offer up enough similarities between oppressed groups, and enough incongruities between how those experiences are interpreted and understood, that some progressives’ circuits will begin to burn with the cognitive dissonance of it all, and they’ll twitch into action… and maybe invite some of their buddies along.
Doesn’t any self-respecting radical want to avoid being pulled along blindly by the masses, or bearing too much in common with status quo beliefs? I guess we’ll see.
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.