Often, we hear that some people believe “mental illness” is just an excuse for bad behavior. Well-meaning advocates say that attitudes such as these are one reason why we need more mental health “literacy.
Mental illnesses, we are told, are biological conditions for which the “sufferer” has no moral culpability, as capricious as diabetes or heart disease.
A more enlightened attitude to those exhibiting behaviors that are disturbing is to view them as biologically ill and in need of treatment, rather than human beings making the wrong choices.
Mental Illness Excused Us from Personal Responsibility
Take, for example Andy Behrman, “Electroboy,” who writes in his article “Dump the Stigma and Focus on Recovery”:
“My manic depression was ravaging my life, but because nobody could see it, many people thought it was a figment of my imagination. Soon I started thinking this too. But when the symptoms were out of control – the racing thoughts, the hallucinations and the sleepless nights – the fact that I really was ill was reassuring.”
Now when I hear about people engaging in indiscriminate sex, my natural reaction is to question how much they really value themselves, and how much dignity they maintain in relationships.
When I came out of the hospital, there were always people I had to apologize to. I even remember one time telling a guy I’d fooled around with, a practical stranger, that I had a mood disorder that affected my judgment. I did not accept personal responsibility. Needless to say, we didn’t stay friends.
Some would say he discriminated against me for my illness, but I have a simpler explanation. I never explained myself, never truly repented, or accepted personal responsibility, for what I’d done. I never faced the shame that led me to my poor decision.
And I never learned how to love and care about myself, so I would make better choices in the future.
I just kept talking with my doctor, taking meds that were making it hard for me to think, feel and function, and telling people I had a “mood disorder.” I apologized, but not because I felt personal responsibility, or truly understood the ramifications of what I’d done, but because I’d been cowed into a position of shame by psychiatry. I needed to regain my friends’ support.
And then I was upset when people stopped being friends with me.
Are Personal Responsibility and Morality Old-Fashioned?
We live in a society that considers invoking morality old-fashioned, dogmatic, conservative, and religious in a pejorative way. Since we have so many freedoms in this society — I can show my ankles, won’t get stoned for adultery, can read whatever smut I want, and so on — we view moralistic arguments as a threat to our rights and liberties.
As if to say that judging someone for their bad choices means that you are condemning them as a person.
But I know I wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who lies and cheats, steals, gets drunk and stoned out of their mind and has sex with strangers. And neither would many people.
Your Genes Are Not Your Personal Responsibility
“Oh, God. Their son had a mental illness. Was I going to end up living with them for the rest of their lives? And of course, they wanted to know if it was genetic. My telling them that it was didn’t exactly make for a pleasant conclusion to the dinner. Not only were they now faced with the stigma that their son had a mental illness, but the stigma that mental illness ran in the family.”
I think advocates’ compassion is misplaced when they feel sorry for people who behave in harmful, antisocial ways while claiming an illness made them do it.