Anyone who gets a first-hand glimpse into experiencing the health challenges brought on by mental illness soon comes to see how often these afflictions and the people who face them are misunderstood, maligned, dismissed, or distrusted. Whether your vantage point is that of a professional like me, a family member of someone who suffers, or someone feeling the painful collapse of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, you quickly understand that mental illness still carries with it an undeserved mark of disdain. The term for this is stigma.
Over the last decade or more, we started to think that, at long last, there were signs that this harmful social phenomenon was weakening. You could find TV commercials in prime time for psychiatric medicines or print ads in major magazines; you could hear prominent people in the entertainment or sports fields talking openly about their mental health. During the pandemic, almost everyone was experiencing the stress, anxiety, and disruption caused by this global crisis and felt a new appreciation that mental health was indeed a vital part of health, every bit as real as any another type of illness. But, just like the COVID-19 virus, stigma just won’t go away.
Just recently, another example of ascribing false assumptions to people with a mental illness popped into the headlines after a celebrity publicly advanced his antisemitic views. They were, by some, casually dismissed as being derived from his mental health problems that he had freely disclosed previously. It was as if they were saying, “What do you expect? He’s got a mental illness.”
The actions of someone who is antisemitic, racist, or bigoted in any fashion should not be dismissed simply as a symptom of their mental condition. Doing so is a misinformed conclusion that harms both people with mental illness and groups targeted by such prejudice.
Making a connection between mental illness and bigotry is a complex matter. One does not lead to the other. While both can exist in an individual, most of the time they do not. Similarly, mental illness and violence – the vast majority of the time – don’t exist together. To be clear, mental illness is not a character flaw, but neither is the character flaw of racism evidence of mental illness. A personality colored by hatred isn’t a symptom of mental illness. As to this celebrity, I suspect that he may not understand the impact of his hateful messages nor the dangerous consequences they might bring for our country or for himself. All of us, with mental illness or not, are responsible for our words and actions.
But, could it be that social ills like racism, bigotry, and stigma do have something in common? Could it be another sign of the often pervasive but hidden caste system our culture has that sticks to it like glue? By that I mean the tendency we have to separate people different from us, as if to place them on some ladder of hierarchy and privilege, with those on higher rungs considered better and more worthy of society’s rights and benefits than those below.
Perhaps it would be more fruitful to focus on the work our whole society needs to do to dismantle the wrong idea that some people are better than others, to purge our laws and practices of racism and hate, and to humbly search our hearts to find the truth that we are all in this together. I suspect our future depends upon that.