Society’s deeply ingrained fear of mental illness has ancient roots; we are not the first or the last culture to turn away from those who don’t mesh with our expectations for performance, emotions, and competence. At the same time, though, the options for managing mental illness are broader and more effective than they ever were before, creating the possibility of a society where mentally ill people could seek the treatment options they need and want, be supported through treatment, and be accepted by society as who they are, rather than being ostracised to the fringes. Yet, this hasn’t happened, leading me to wonder why it is that people fear us, yet refuse to help us.
Mentally ill people are not the only ones with a history of being pushed to the margins of society for disability, nor are they the only ones who continue to be treated this way. People have always feared any kind of illness, physical impairment, or cognitive disability, and they’ve made a point of keeping disabled people out of view, without necessarily thinking about their needs as human beings. Look at the exile of lepers two thousand years ago, or, for that matter, the isolation and abandonment of HIV/AIDS patients in the 1980s when they needed medical aid, not neglect.
Yet, mental illness in particular is identified as a significant social problem by numerous pundits along with government agencies and the general public. People have determined that mentally ill people are a threat (despite ample studies providing otherwise and indicating that in fact we are at greater risk from society than society is from us), and view mental illness as a deep wrong that needs to be suppressed and fixed, yet they don’t want to pay for the tools to do so. They criminalise mental illness, they make it hard to access treatment, they push us out of organisations intended to address mental health issues, and they otherwise make it clear that their fear overrides any desire to address mental illness in the US.
If you believe that mental illness is a threat, surely the most efficient and effective way to address that threat is to treat people with mental illness. If more people have tools to manage their mental health conditions, surely they become less threatening, right? Or is it that you inherently believe any kind of mental health condition, no matter how well managed, is dangerous, no matter what, and thus treatment is ineffective and pointless?
That seems to be the general gist of things, judging from the way in which mental health conditions are criminalised in the US. You’re more likely to end up in prison if you have a mental health condition, and once there, you’re unlikely to receive care. You’re also more likely to live in poverty, to experience homelessness, to have trouble finding work, to have difficulty building and maintaining social connections. These things can make the difference between successful treatment and failure, yet they aren’t being addressed. It is apparently easier to lock people up for being crazy than it is to address the underlying causes of severe mental health conditions, and to create a supportive environment to address them.
Homeless veterans, for example, don’t actually want to be homeless, living on the streets, scrabbling for survival. They don’t want to experience severe symptoms of untreated mental health conditions like hallucinations, delusions of grandeur, voices in their heads, dissociation, depression, mania, compulsive thoughts. Most would much rather be receiving treatment and support, even if they can’t articulate that while they’re experiencing severe episodes as a result of their illness. Rather than kicking them to the curb, perhaps compassionate treatment is in order, with a holistic system intended to ensure that people can maintain their treatment goals and continue working within the mental health system.
Imprisoning people doesn’t solve anything, and neither does letting them fall through the cracks. Fear of mental illness drives people deep underground, and it is this, not the mental illness, that creates dangerous conditions. People who are not receiving treatment are vulnerable to exploitation, abuse, and violence, and they may lack the tools to report abusive situations to the authorities. Additionally, they may be mocked or humiliated by the people who are supposed to be helping them; a homeless woman with schizophrenia who reports a rape, for example, is highly unlikely to be taken seriously, even if she bears clear evidence of sexual assault.
If we’re so scary, wouldn’t it make sense to make us less scary? Mentally ill people seem like a boggart to many people, rather than fellow human beings who need compassion and assistance. And who, given the right tools and equal treatment in society, could also find their footing. Those who say mentally ill people don’t contribute to society are basing their assessment on the product of their fear, the people they see struggling to survive because they can’t access care and are terrified to seek it out in a culture where being mentally ill marks you for violence and exposes you to the risk of incarceration. It’s hard to ‘contribute’ to a society that so clearly doesn’t want you, but given half a chance, most people actually do want to be a part of this society, do want to make a difference, do want to be more engaged with the world.
But as long as fear dictates funding priorities and mental health policy, these things are not going to happen. Because fear dictates that we be swept under the carpet and held up as objects of terror, rather than treated like human beings with our own dignity, potential, and rights.