Letter to Melissa Harris-Perry

[Note: This post started as an open letter to Melissa Harris-Perry, one of my favorite public commentators and host of The Melissa Harris-Perry Show. Realizing, of course, that Melissa Harris-Perry is highly unlikely to read this letter (since she has other shit to do), and that people on my blog ARE likely to read the letter, the letter evolved into a more general analysis of how we can discuss mental illness in mainstream spaces in a constructive and not-disablist way. My solutions don't go far beyond the glaringly obvious, but sadly, the current state of discourse is such that even the glaringly obvious would be a victory.] 

[Not that I would complain if Melissa Harris-Perry DID read the letter, but I just wanted to cover all my bases] 

Content note for disablism, mental illness, violence.

****

Dear Melissa,

Hi! My name is CD.

Okay, actually, I’m writing to you from my pseudonymous blog, so my pseudonym is CD. My name is something completely different.

Now that we have that out of the way -

So, first of all: I’m a big fan of the Melissa Harris-Perry show. As a progressive, watching the mainstream news usually makes my head explode. If it’s not the all-white, all-male panelists discussing reproductive rights, it’s the casual sexism, or racism, or transphobia, or classism, or – there’s a whole list.

Watching your show, on the other hand, is… what’s the opposite of “head exploding from rage?”
Whatever that emotion is, that’s how I feel when I watch the show.
The Melissa Harris-Perry show examine issues that no one else is talking about – solitary confinement, the war on drugs, transphobia, poverty (to name just a few). And your panels are meaningfully diverse – I think you’re the only current affairs show I’ve ever seen where white men are consistently in the minority of your panelists.

There is, however, a more… pointed reason for my letter than fangirling over the wonderfulness, head-exploding-with-confetti-ness of the show.

I wanted to talk to you about the way your show has addressed mental illness.

In the wake of the Sandy Hooks massacre, many of your episodes have included segments on gun violence and gun control. For the most part, I’ve thought those panels were fantastic. You and your guests have a knack for refusing to allow unexamined assumptions to remain… well, unexamined.

Mental illness, however, is one assumption that I think has remained unexamined on your show (at least, so far).

It hasn’t been a big thing on the show, let me be clear. Neither your nor the panelists have talked at length about mental illness and its relationship to gun violence. But like clockwork, every time the issue of gun violence comes up, someone will say “Noun, verb, we need to talk about mental illness.”

And then the moment passes.
Unexamined.

Let me give you some examples. On the December 15th show, a guest said we should not stigmatize socially awkward kids (this was in the wake of Adam Lanza being described as “socially awkward”) but we should make sure that their social awkwardness was not the result of a “personality disorder.”The assumption being, I suppose, that social awkwardness is not dangerous, but a personality disorder might be.

[That particular guest might be shocked to learn that 9% of Americans ages 18 and above have a personality disorder] 

On the January 13th show, you said Americans are afraid “a madman” will enter a school and start shooting. Another guest explained that Americans support background checks to keep guns out of the hands of “criminals, convicted fellons, domestic abusers and the dangerously mentally ill.”

Again, it’s just a moment. A passing mention.
But those passing mentions contain a giant truckload of assumptions about what mental illness is, who mentally ill people are, and how mental illness is connected to gun violence.

Here’s a final example. On January 12th, a guest said: “A lot of Americans don’t think [gun violence] is about gun control. They think this is about crazy people. So that’s why you see the President talking about mental health.”

That would be the moment I started arguing with my computer screen [I watch the show online].

Because I am a crazy person.

No, I don’t mean that hyperbolically. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I don’t mean that I’m eccentric or silly or ridiculous or bizarre.

I mean that, assuming your guest thinks “crazy people” are people with mental health issues, I am a crazy person.

Yes, I am a person with mental health issues. I have a mental illness. In fact, I have two! (Sadly, you don’t win any prizes for having more than one – I’ve checked)

So every time someone on a news show casually mentions that mentally ill people are dangerous, or every time an unnamed Governor (*cough* Andrew Cuomo *cough*) passes a law that limits access to guns by the mentally ill, because “People who have mental health issues should not have guns. They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people”  -

Every time, they are talking about me.

And I don’t like being talked about. I prefer to be involved in any discussion that concerns me. Hence my desire to talk back. To create a dialogue, if you will.

***

On the January 26th segment about Obama’s war and drone strikes, Melissa, you talked about how you think “drones” have become a progressive meme. As you explained, progressive don’t really know why they oppose drones, or what they actually think the problem is – but they will consistently say things like “I support Obama, except for his drone policy.”

I submit to you that mental health has become a similar meme. No one knows exactly why mental health is linked to gun violence, or even whether or not gun violence has anything to do with mental illness.  No one’s seen the research, or talked to people with mental illnesses, or even really considered what they mean by “dangerously mentally ill” or “crazy” or “discussion about mental illness.”But everyone feels compelled to mention mentally illness whenever we have a conversation about guns.

So let’s look at the facts.

- First, and crucially: We don’t actually know whether or not Adam Lanza had a mental illness. We’re just assuming he had one, based on the fact that he shot and killed twenty six people.

His brother and some of his neighbors have reported that Adam Lanza was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome or was on the Autism Spectrum. If this is true (and relying on second-hand information is not exactly great), we need to remember that Aspergers and Autism are not mental illnesses. They are developmental disabilities. 

And it is symptomatic of the state of the discourse about mental illness that very few people have bothered to make the distinction. Indeed, at this point we’re using “mental illness” as a catch-all term for everything from developmental disabilities to mood disorder and personality disorders to people who are neuroatypical. Only some of those things are actual mental illnesses.

- Second: Violence is not linked to mental illness

The reason public commentators – and many of your guests – keep bringing up mental illness, Melissa, is because they assume that mental illness causes violence. Yes, we don’t actually know if Adam Lanza had a mental illness, the thinking goes. But because he shot up a school, he must have one  In other words: to pick up a gun and go shoot a group of strangers, you must be crazy.

(Interestingly, no one ever brings up the mental illness argument after a terrorist attack. Why aren’t we concerned about the mental health of terrorists? We don’t need drones in the middle east – we need more anti-depressants!)

And indeed, the research shows that most Americans believe people with mental illnesses “pose a threat for violence towards others and themselves” (source)

But that is not the reality.

Most of the people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses. Repeated for emphasis: most of the people who are responsible for violent crimes – rape, domestic abuse, gun violence, assault, homicide etc. – do not have mental illnesses.

Moreover, the vast majority of  mentally ill people are not violent. Indeed, according to nearly every study on the subject, “The absolute risk of violence among the mentally ill as a group is very small. . . only a small proportion of the violence in our society can be attributed to persons who are mentally ill (Mulvey, 1994).”

Moreover, it is a provable fact that mentally ill populations – including mentally ill people with illnesses that we most associate with violence (Schizophrenia, for example) – are in fact no more violent than the rest of the population. 

Now, you might ask: “Okay, but Adam Lanza might have had autism. Are autism/aspergers/other developmental disabilities linked with violence?”

And the answer would, again, be “no.”
To quote Dr. Max Wizniter, a neurologist and autism expert, “Aggression and violence in the ASD population is reactive, not preplanned and deliberate” – exactly the opposite of Adam Lanza’s very carefully planned massacre.

These facts directly contradict the popular meme that mass violence is caused by “the mentally ill” and that if we just get more mental health care, or make sure to keep guns out of the hands of people with mental illness, or create a national database of mentally ill people, gun violence will go down.

It is provably untrue that mental illness causes violence. I will repeat this until I am blue in the face, because people are just not hearing it: it is provably untrue that mental illness causes violence.

When public commentators put mental health care on the list of things we can do to stop gun violence, it makes just about as much sense as saying that more knitting classes will stop violence. Or people eating more tomatoes. Lack of tomatoes is not the problem. Lack of knitting classes is not the problem. And mental illness is not the problem.

This is not, of course, to argue that no mentally ill people are violent. Some mentally ill people are. But  violence cannot be predicted by one’s mental health. Being mentally ill or neuroatypical makes you no more likely to commit acts of atrocity than anyone else.

***

Melissa, I am not just writing this to correct a popular misconception about mental illness. I am also writing because, as you know, discourse has consequences.

Indeed, talking about mental illness as the source of gun violence isn’t just factually incorrect. By talking about “the mentally ill” as though they’re all ticking timb-bombs, ready to explode into violence and aggression, we are further stigmatizing people with mental illness.

When Andrew Cuomo tells the world “People who have mental health issues should not have guns. They could hurt themselves, they could hurt other people,” he is furthering the stereotype that people with mental health issues have no self-control, that they are incapable of making good decisions and society needs to “take care of them.”

When one of your guests says: “A lot of Americans don’t think [gun violence] is about gun control. They think this is about crazy people. So that’s why you see the President talking about mental health” he is furthering the stereotype that “crazy people” are inherently violent.

And when Wayne LaPierre – I hate to bring him up, but he occupies a prominent role in the discourse – says that there are “genuine monsters” in American society, and then, in the same breath, tells us we should create a national registry of the mentally ill…

I’m pretty sure I don’t have to explain that one, do I?

People with mental illness are not the hidden monsters of American society. They are not incompetent crazies who are incapable of making decisions for themselves. And they are not ticking-time-bombs of potential violence.

But that is what the discourse is making us out to be.

And discourse has consequences. 

Hypothetically, do you think that knowing society thinks people with mental illness are violent and dangerous makes someone more or less likely to seek mental health care?

Do you think knowing your mental health professional might have to register you in a National Database makes you more or less likely to seek mental health care?

Do you think believing that mentally ill people are incompetent and incapable of good-decision making makes you more or less likely to seek mental health care?

Speaking about autism, Sara Reed, director of advocacy and family services for an autism resource center in Connecticut said: “We’re very concerned about families feeling stigmatized and being afraid to seek services for fear that their child will be seen as a possible monster.”

Stigma makes people less likely to seek help, not more.

***
I know this letter is getting a bit long (the bad news is that I write best at length. My professors love grading me), but trust me, this is where we get to the good part.

Initially, Melissa, I just planned to write a letter to you explaining why our current discourse around mental illness is harmful. But I’ve already talked about that in other contexts: specifically in a blog post I wrote right after Newtown.

So, I thought: is this just going to be another rant about disablism (social prejudice against people with disabilities)? Because rants are good! Rants are useful! But maybe – you could stretch a bit. Stretching is good.

Okay. You’re writing to a public commentator. You’re writing to a public commentator who you admire precisely because she’s so good at creating constructive, nuanced, non-oppressive dialogue on TV – a space where constructive dialogue is… very hard to find.

Why don’t you take a page from her book and try to address how we could have constructive, non-oppressive dialogue about mental illness in mainstream spaces?

You want better dialogue, CD? Explain what that looks like.

Since my brain tends to order me around, that’s what I’m doing here, in the second part of the letter.

I’m not saying this dialogue has to happen on the Melissa Harris-Perry show, by the way! Presumably, you have lots and lots and lots of other things to do. Like being a professor WHILE ALSO RUNNING A TV SHOW (how are you so awesome? Can you teach me your ways?)

Instead, I’m taking inspiration from the show and trying to imagine what we would need to have a constructive, non-oppressive dialogue about mental health. In mainstream spaces.

[The most obvious thing we need, of course, is to stop linking mental illness to gun violence, but I think I've addressed that issue pretty thoroughly above, and people are probably already getting bored.]

1. Inclusion of People with Mental Illnesses

The first, and most important thing that we can do to create constructive dialogue about mental illness is to include and prioritize the voices of people with mental illnesses. 

The Melissa Harris-Perry Show is, I think, probably the best show I’ve seen for this: when you talk about an oppression, most of your guests are members of that oppressed group. When you talked about trans* issues and cissexism, most of your panelists were trans*. When you talk about race, most of your panelists are people of color. When you discuss women, most of your panelists are women.

And that’s something I don’t think I’ve seen any show, any newspaper or any magazine in the mainstream do with regards to mental illness.

Can you imagine having a conversation about women’s reproductive rights without any female speakers?

… wait, this is the United States. Of course you can! In fact, it’s happened before. But when it happens, we are (rightfully) outraged. Yet the very same people who are horrified when conservatives discuss reproductive rights without including women have no problem with a conversation on mental health that does not include anyone with a mental illness.

[It is, I must say, quite frustrating to turn on the TV and hear people talking about me as if I were completely incapable of speaking for myself]

The mentally ill are people we talk about, not people we talk to. We aren’t interested in having a conversation with them, despite the fact that they’re the ones most affected by the issue. They’re some kind of nebulous other, voiceless and faceless.

But we are not a nebulous other. If you know more than four people, you probably know someone with a mental disorder. If you know more than twenty, you probably know someone with a major mental illness.

Approximately one fourth of all Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. 6% of people suffer from a serious mental illness like major depressive disorder, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or borderline personality disorder. Mental disorders are the leading cause of disability in the US and Canada.

Personality disorders? Nine percent of Americans.
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder? Three percent of Americans.
Schizophrenia? One percent of Americans.
Bipolar Disorder? Between two and three percent of Americans.
Mood disorders? Nine percent of Americans.

And when we talk about developmental disorders (when we can be bothered not to lump them in with mental illnesses), we should prioritize the voices of people who actually have developmental disorders. Which, incidentally, means I’m a total hypocrite, because I… have no developmental disorder.

Estimating the prevalence of Autism Spectrum Disorders is difficult given the differences in the ways that cases are identified and defined (and the continually changing diagnostic criteria), but a recent CDC study estimated that the prevalence is around 1 in 110.

(all statistics from: National Institute of Mental Health)

My point, it is this: there are a whole lot of people with mental illnesses, neuroatypical people and people with developmental disabilities. If you know more than four people, you probably know someone with a mental disorder. If you know more than twenty, you probably know someone with a major mental illness.

If you want to talk to us, you can find us. 

So, Step one to constructive dialogue: include and prioritize the opinions/voices of people with mental illness.

MOREOVER, to take a page from the Melissa Harris-Perry Show (again), we should make sure that the conversation is meaningfully intersectional. For example, when the Melissa Harris-Perry show has panels on reproductive rights, the guests aren’t all white, straight women. There are women of color, queer women etc. Similarly, conversations about mental illness should not be dominated by white, middle class, cisgendered, straight people with mental illness.

(Oh, hi, hypocrite award #2! I’m white, middle class and cisgendered)

Which leads to point #2 on creating constructive dialogue about mental illness

2. Talking about issues that actually affect people with mental illnesses in an intersectional manner. 

Which, again, does not include talking about gun violence (except insofar as gun violence affects people with mental illness because, hey, we can get shot too! Also, many people who survive gun violence develop mental health issues)

So what are some of the issues that affect people with mental illnesses?

… whoa. That’s a, er, VERY BIG question.

When I think about the array of issues surrounding mental health and neurodiversity that we, as a society, need to tackle, I feel daunted. We need to work on accessibility. We need to work on accommodations in the workplace, in schools, and in society as a whole. We need to promote a wider understanding of what mental illnesses are (and are not). We need to realize that everyone has mental health needs, not just the people with diagnosed mental illnesses.

And we can’t do any of these things without first destigmatizing mental illnesses. It doesn’t matter if we have the best access and accomodations in the world, if people are too ashamed or scared of being considered “weak” and “crazy” and “dangerous” to use them. So we need to talk about destigmatization, and what that would look like, and how we get there.

Moreover, since mental illness is not a monolith, there will be no single solution, no one-size fits all. It’s possible to destigmatize depression without destigmatizing schizophrenia, for example. People with bipolar disorder, people with depression, people with schizophrenia, people with PTSD – all of them need very different things. When we consider that most people lump developmental disabilities or variances under “mental illness” (even though they expressedly are not) this becomes even more complicated – a policy to help people with autism probably won’t help people with depression.

Not to mention the fact that every individual person experiences illness in different ways.

All of these conversations, moreover, need to take place with a broad understanding of intersectionality. The issues that face a mentally ill person like me – white, middle class, cis, bisexual and female – will be vastly different from the experiences of a person of color, or a trans* person, or a poor person with mental illnesses. And a society that already believes people with developmental disabilities and mental illnesses are violent is even less tolerant towards those bodies that are constantly coded as violent: for example, most of the the violence directed at people with mental illnesses is directed towards black men (girl janitor).

There are really important, HIGHLY under-discussed ways that disablism intersects with race, class, gender identity (and expression) and sexual orientation.

We want to have a conversation about mental health issues?

These are good places to start.

***

In my perfect fantasy world, of course, this conversation would actually happen on your show, Melissa. But you, I think, have a lot of other things on your plate. So instead, I hope (ambitiously, for a small blog) that this letter/blog post can serve as a starting point for people who want to have good-faith conversations about mental illness.

Thank you for showing that constructive conversations can happen on TV, Melissa. And keep being awesome.

Sincerely,

CD

p.s: if I could ask one favor, though, Melissa, I would really, really appreciate it if you steered your guests away from saying problematic things about mental illness. It… gets wearying.

p.p.s: For everyone who is interested, here are further resources about mental illness. They are also some of the the resources I used to write this post (so everyone can verify my research! Hey, I’m writing an open letter to a Professor. My research better be solid)

Stop Linking Autism to Violence 

The Numbers Count: Mental Disorders in America

In Pursuit of Doing Something Meaningful 

An Observation About Mental Illness (on how trauma, like that suffered by the students at Newtown, often causes mental health issues)

On Sitting With Fear (Analysis of why all the mass shooters have been white men)

Girl Janitor: Race and Mental Illness (if you are a white person with mental illnesses and you cite statistics on mentally ill people being shot by the police (Hi, I was one of you, once!) , YOU NEED TO READ THIS)

Dispelling the Myth of Violence and Mental Illness 

On Not Being Adam Lanza (shameless self-promotion)

Feel free to add onto this in the comments.


3 Comments on “Letter to Melissa Harris-Perry”

  1. Lacey says:

    Long but worthwhile *lol*. And since I also think better in long-form…. I’ve been arguing with people that you can’t start solving the mass-shooting problem from the mental health side of things. YES it is a temptation to certain people to think that you can somehow tell that a particular type of proto-criminal is going to go “around the bend”. That you can extract those people’s rights away with a knife because they are essentially criminals anyways – they’re just awaiting the right circumstances. And so the lawmakers and the commentators are tossing around terms they don’t understand, and envisioning consequences that will lead to much more harm to a society that ALMOST seemed to be unclenching enough from the Gothic to admit that maybe people who are mentally ill need more help than a locked attic and careful, knowing smiles from those who have to excuse “Poor Harry’s” behavior. That maybe BEING mentally ill is something you can get help for without becoming that crazy relative in the attic. And now people want to lock “them” back up and throw away the key, without even considering how great a chance that all the jailers, all the judges and juries and peers are “them” as well.

    We would have a much greater rate of success if we just locked all white males aged 11- 45 away, because who can tell if one of them will take their videogames a little too seriously? And yet that suggestion is actually certifiable.

    My spouse is someone who has suffered from lifelong depression. And then a series of bullies encountered at work tipped him into PTSD. He talked about suicide. He talked about homicide. He saw a therapist, he saw a doctor, he got several medications and was told that he had to work harder on his own issues. He called me up one day at work with a gun to his head and gave me enough time to call the police. I did, they came and thankfully he surrendered himself into their care, and he was taken to the hospital for a week. Despite his history he was given every chance in the world to not bear a lifelong stigmata – they talked him into voluntarily being committed, so it didn’t show on his work applications. They talked him into staying long enough for us to get our home into a place he could return to safely, and until he had gotten some rest and a chance to really think. It has been over a year, and he is slowly returning to the man I married. Sometime about 4 months ago he finally stopped asking me several times a week to unlock his safe and take out the gun he was able to legally buy AFTER he was released from the hospital and AFTER we had taken all the rest of them away to a safe place.

    I think… I think the problem, the reason why these are men who are doing these horrible things is that they don’t know how to ask for help. Not really. Women TALK to people, if they can. Men are told they have to soldier on, to toughen up, to work harder, to not let it bug them. For my husband, every time he purchased a gun, from his very first one which he bought with the explicit intention of using it to commit suicide with one day, every time he he did that he was asking for help, was asking to be stopped and asked WHY he needed so many. Because the people – mostly men – who end up killing, they aren’t the ones who have been diagnosed. They aren’t the ones who even seem off enough that friends, relatives, loved ones have insisted that they seek help. And so I really can’t see how any dialogue that begins or ends with consequences for a diagnosis can help our society at all, and a thousand ways it can destroy it.

  2. Mom says:

    Bravo! Courageux et interessant. [M...i]

  3. You are Awesome. I wandered over here from Galactic Suburbia only to discover one of the most logical, well researched and engaging discussions of mental illness I’ve come across. Thank you.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,111 other followers