Thursday, August 14, 2014

I Am Not an Illness

The suicide of Robin Williams has had a lot of people writing on "mental illness" and suicide of late. It is perhaps because of the utter shock that, of all people, Robin Williams committed suicide. Had it been a heart attack, we would have been sad, but unsurprised. His death being a suicide magnified the sadness exponentially.

In the immediate aftermath, it was not surprising to hear many people talk about how important it was that we have a "national dialogue" on mental illness. I heard people use that term -- mental illness -- over and over and over, and it occurred to me that that was the problem: the very concept of mental illness.

What, exactly, is a mental illness? Any more, what isn't? Unless you are a perfectly normal person -- unless you have an I.Q. between 90 and 110, can sit still the entire time you are in school, obey all authorities at all times, and are happy to work 9 to 5 and get married and have the designated number of kids -- you are mentally ill. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with any of the above, but why does deviation from it mean you're less than those people? That is, after all, what being called "mentally ill" means. It means that you are less than those who are not. They are healthy, you are unhealthy. Unhealthy things are less than healthy things. Therefore...

Now, let me put all of my cards on the table. By contemporary American standards, I'm mentally ill. I am mildly bipolar, I have had two nervous breakdowns, and I have Asperger's Syndrome. I have had a great deal of difficulty "fitting in" to society. But just because someone does not fit in to a particular society at a particular time, does that mean they are mentally ill? I have an extremely good long-term memory and I am a poet. A few thousand years ago, that would have made me the tribal poet, who kept the myths of the tribe. I would have been Homer. Nobody would have thought it strange that I was mostly withdrawn and antisocial, until it was time for me to recite the stories. I would have been greatly valued then.

Or consider someone with schizophrenia, who sees visions. Today, we medicate such people. In other times and places, such a person was a religious leader, a shaman, whose visions were valued. The story of John Nash shows us how valuable schizophrenia can be -- he rejected his medication, because he couldn't think on them. Had he been medicated early on in life, where would game theory have been?

More, the story of John Nash shows us that even something as severe as schizophrenia can be dealt with without treating it as an illness. He learned to identify what was real and what was not real. Imagine what could happen if people with schizophrenia were taught how to deal with the visions, how to control or ignore them, rather than to have them medicated away.

If it is possible for John Nash, it's possible for others. And it's possible for others who have mental differences. We with Asperger's or autism have to learn how to fit into society; the fact that I have been able to make any number of changes in how I act and interact over the years -- before I learned I had Asperger's -- shows it is possible to change and adapt. It would help if our society actually valued our differences and did not punish us for them by telling us we are less than those who are neurotypical. We are not less than you simply because we are neurologically different. And being told we are -- directly or indirectly, by pathologizing our differences -- does not help us. Quite the contrary: being told we are less, many have decided it's not worth being here on earth.

Imagine being Robin Williams. The way his brain worked is why he was so brilliantly funny. Yet, the way his brain worked was also labeled as "mentally ill." He was told that the very thing that made him who he was, the very thing that everyone loved about him and valued about him, was "wrong." He was "wrong," less than the rest of humanity. That's what the rhetoric of "mental illness" does. It devalues and it dehumanizes. That's enough to make most people want to kill themselves.

More, we make it impossible for someone who is having suicidal thoughts to talk about it. We are told that if we encounter a person with suicidal thoughts, we should tell someone. At the same time, we are told we need to be with a suicidal person throughout their suicidal episode, until it passes. But if you know that telling someone you are having suicidal thoughts will result in their telling the authorities, and if you know that one of the ways you can get locked up is if you are a "threat to yourself or others," what is the incentive to tell anyone? There is none. The incentive is the opposite, in fact. Keep it to yourself, so you won't get locked up (and become more depressed because you're in a mental hospital).

We do need a national dialogue about "mental illness." And the dialogue needs to be about how we need to stop pathologizing differences in this culture. We are well on the way with homosexuality. Now we need to depathologize the rest.
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