As a followup to yesterday’s post on ACA and seeking help for mental health issues, I wanted to touch upon a subject that comes up periodically when people ask me for advice about helping mentally ill family and friends. Bluntly, if you are in danger, you have the right, and perhaps the imperative, to leave. You are not under obligation to stay in a situation where your safety is at risk, no matter how much you love someone. It’s also a subject that sometimes comes up in larger conversations about mental illness, where advocates are accused of insisting that people stay in dangerous situations or risk being accused of being ableist.
So let me say this plainly: While I strongly urge people to provide support and compassion to the mentally ill people in their life, I also do not believe that anyone should be forced to endure violence, or the risk of such, whether it’s emotional or physical. No one is required to stay in a home where domestic violence is occurring. No one is required to stay with a partner who threatens children, pets, or loved ones. If you are in danger, your first priority must be putting on your own oxygen mask first and getting to safety. Period.
It’s very important to me that people understand the fact that mental illness doesn’t make people violent, and that there is in fact a very low instance of violence in the mentally ill community. That said, I do acknowledge that some people may act violent during periods of psychosis or other serious mental health breaks — and that some people are just violent, and use mental illness as an excuse, claiming that they can’t control themselves. Those same people sometimes use their mental illnesses manipulatively, trying to force people to stay in abusive relationships on the grounds that ‘abandoning’ a partner in need is a low blow.
The world is a scary and complicated place. In every situation where a mentally ill person needs help and support, the best kind of support available, and needed, varies, and no one person can bear the sole responsibility of providing that help, assisting people as they seek the treatment they need, and staying stable in their lives. We lack the social network needed to support mentally ill people in our communities, and to help people get what they need — so often, loved ones are unfairly left shouldering the bulk of the responsibility.
It’s frustrating for us crazies as much as it is for sane people. Many of us hate having to reach out for help (part of the reason why sometimes our mental health conditions get as bad as they do, because we are afraid). We hate feeling helpless and disadvantaged by our own brains, we hate having to rely on other people, we hate the looks of pity and fear that appear on some of your faces. And we hate it when we’re made into burdens and obligations instead of human beings, which we often are in rhetoric about mental illness and communities.
Mental illness is not an excuse for violence. Period. Violence is not acceptable — though when it occurs in the context of a severe mental health episode, the roots of it may be understood. It’s possible to understand where something is coming from without excusing it, though. Violence is violence and you are not obliged to put up with it. You are not obliged to try to ‘fix’ a partner, friend, or other associate who is behaving violently, no matter who they are. You are allowed to walk away.
You can explain why you need to leave, and you can provide suggestions for accessing resources, but you are not required to do more than that. You are not responsible for other people. If you’re deeply concerned, you can call a mental health professional to explain the situation and ask for advice — both for you (as you may benefit from counseling and other assistance after experiencing a violent relationship) and for the person you’re concerned about. This is not an endorsement of forcible treatment, but rather a suggestion that sometimes doors can be nudged open to help people walk through them — but again, it’s not your responsibility to open those doors. Anyone who tells you that you are the final line of defense and hope for someone else is being unfair, and, depending on the setting, manipulative and abusive.
You are a human being. We live in a world where mentally ill people are often dehumanised and treated like garbage, and your desire to not contribute to that is an indicator that you’re thinking about these issues and you’re committed to making the world a better place. But even with that in mind, you don’t have to sacrifice yourself. And if you’re in a dangerous situation and you need help, you can reach out for it — maybe you need access to a shelter while you get out of a domestic violence situation and get back on your feet. Maybe you need temporary boarding for your animals or other community resources. These are available for you to use, and there is no shame in using them.
I hate to see mental health stigma being twisted in this way, punishing both mentally ill people and the people who love them. Very few advocates would say that they support staying in a dangerous, unstable, or risky situation — and those who do aren’t doing anyone any good, including mentally ill people.
You have the power to walk away. If you can’t handle a situation, that doesn’t make you a bad person or a failure. It makes you human.
Image: Woman series #1, Daniel Horatio Agostini, Flickr.