[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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
On Not Being Adam Lanza (shameless self-promotion)
Feel free to add onto this in the comments.
[Content note for violence, violence against children, disablism]
Last week was not a good time for my happy levels. First, we had the Good Man Project (or,as I like to call it, the No Rapist Left Behind Project) debacle. Then a close friend of mine died unexpectedly. And on Friday, a gunman walked into Sandy Hooks Elementary School and killed twenty kids and seven adults.
I do not want to be writing this post.
Twenty eight people are dead. Twenty kid are dead, kids who are just a bit younger than my younger brother. I do not want to write about mental illness. It feels… wrong to use this as an excuse to talk about the rights of the mentally ill.
I was not planning on writing this post.
But then it started again. People diagnosing Adam Lanza over the internet, assuming he was mentally ill. An acquaintance saying “Evil is a mental illness.” Everyone, from politicians to newscasters to friends, talking about how we have a “mental health access” problem. There are very few spaces on the internet I can go where people aren’t talking about how we have a “mental illness problem” and how Adam Lanza was surely “mentally ill” and if we just had better access to mental health care this wouldn’t happen etc. Even my usually progressive and social-justice aware friends are falling into the pattern.
Now the Sandy Hooks massacre has everything to do with mental illness.
And now, even though I do not want to write this post, I need to write it.
I need to write it even though I know hundreds of other people will say the same things.
I need to write it especially because hundreds of smart bloggers and social justice crusaders and mental health advocates will say the same things. Because our voices are being out-shouted a thousand to one. We need to be heard if we’re even going to be allowed to participate in this farce of a conversation.
The Sandy Hooks massacre was not caused by mental illness. The mentally ill are not some mob of soon-to-be-violent, ticking time bombs. But damn it, if people are going to sit around and stigmatize the mentally ill as an excuse to avoid looking tragedy in the face? Then hell yeah, I’m going to talk about mental illness.
This is not a fun conversation for me to have. Those who follow the blog – or those who know me from Real Life – know I identify as mentally ill. I have a severe anxiety disorder and a major depressive disorder. Dealing with mental illness has defined my life for the past four or five years.
You’d think I’d be happy people are talking about mental illness. I, of all people, know how problematic it is for mental illness to be pushed under the rug, to be ignored and stigmatized.
Sadly, the conversation around Sandy Hooks embodies everything that is wrong with how we talk about mental illness:
1. Violence MUST be the product of.
Here’s the thing. As of this point, we don’t even know if Adam Lanza had a mental illness or disability of any kind. But strangely enough, we’re all talking about mental illness issues. It’s like we magically know Adam Lanza’s mental state.
But wait! We do! Because only mentally ill people would kill so many people. Ergo, Adam Lanza must be mentally ill.
Acting like violence is the product of mental illness – and ONLY the product of mental illness – is incredibly problematic. And saying that mental health access will solve gun violence is also incredible problematic. Both imply that mentally ill people are violent, dangerous and uncontrollable.
I’m sure some people are going “but they’re not talking about garden-variety depressives like you! They’re talking about the DANGEROUSLY mentally ill.”
Okay, first: *headdesk* again
Second: Yes, in fact, they’re talking about all of us mentally ill folk. The Rachel Maddow Show, for example, had a segment about how to prevent future shootings. The expert’s main recommendation? Adolescents should have a yearly screening for depression.
I’m sorry, how am I not supposed to interpret that as making a causal connection between depression and violence? Did the expert temporarily forget what he was talking about? Was he about to say “gun control laws” but then got his notes mixed up and started talking depression instead?
Nope. What he was saying was that if we do a better job catching depressives, we’ll have fewer school shootings.
Which implies that depression leads to violence.
[everyone better keep the butter knives away from me, I'M JUST SAYING]
The more people talk about how mental illnesses are linked to this type of violence, the more we assume mental illness means violence. And the more and more mental illness becomes stigmatized.
Ironically, stigmatizing mental illness tends to limit access to mental health care, not expand it. How many people do you honestly think are going to say “whoa, I’ve got a mental disability, I’d better get that checked out” after hearing about how mentally ill people are dangerous child killers? Not a whole lot. More people will avoid getting a diagnosis, aware that their condition could get them labeled as dangerous and violent.
Here’s the crucial thing, the thing people are ignoring completely: Violence isn’t linked to mental illness. This is a provable fact. Mentally ill populations – including populations with mental illnesses that we traditionally associate with violence (like schizophrenia) – are no more violent than everyone else.
Most mentally ill people are not violent. Most violent acts are committed by people who do not have mental illnesses. So the whole “Whoa, someone did something terrible! They must be CRAZY”?
To add insult to injury, people with mental illnesses are more likely than the rest of the population to be victims of violence. 3% of the general population experience violent crimes, while TWENTY FIVE percent of those with mental illnesses do.
Welcome to the upside-down world of public discourse on mental illnesses. In real life, most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and in fact are more likely to experience violence than the general population. In public discourse, however, mental illness is responsible for all the Terrible Violence, and no one is ever interested in talking about how people with mental illnesses are victimized and abused by violent crime [we'll come back to that point later]
2. Dehumanization of People with Mental Illnesses
In this national “conversation” about mental illness, you’ll notice something interesting: no one seems terribly interested in talking with mentally ill people.
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. We love telling horror stories about what happens to mentally ill people who don’t have access to mental health services, but we never ask people with mental illnesses what they think of the issue.
Could you imagine having a conversation about, say, women’s reproductive rights, and not inviting women speakers?
[... oh, wait, this is the United States I'm talking about. OF COURSE I could imagine a conversation about women's reproductive rights with absolutely no women involved. In fact, I've seen it happen! Bad example.]
By excluding people with mental illnesses from the conversation, and privileging the voices of those who see mental illness as something terrifying, we are dehumanizing people with mental illnesses. They are not even worth trying to understand. They’re just a problem to be solved, a fear to be controlled.
The most problematic entry in this category is the now-viral post “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” In the article, the writer discusses her fears that her mentally ill son could turn into an Adam Lanza, due to lack of access to adequate mental health care. .
[Initially, I linked to the original article, but since one of my critiques of "I am Adam Lanza's Mother" is that it violates her son's privacy, I decided that linking it would contribute to the problem. But if you want to read it, google!]
I want to be clear that I have a lot of sympathy for the author. I cannot imagine how difficult it must be to protect and care for her children, especially given how much stigma there is around mental illness, and how little support there is for children with mental illnesses. I am not disputing the legitimacy of her grievance, or of her pain. And I, like her, desperately want us to find better solutions for children with mental illnesses.
The article, however, is incredibly problematic. Not just because it appropriates a national tragedy. Not just because it appropriates Nancy Lanza’s experiences, or tries to express a solidarity with her that may not have existed.
But because it appropriates the son’s experiences.
There is a reason this went viral. And the fact that it was written by a “sane” person talking about a mentally ill person, rather than a person with mental illnesses talking about their own experiences? A big part of that reason.
The author – and the commenters – do not acknowledge that the son has his own experiences and ideas. They seem to have no interest in having a discussion with him, or with people like him. Instead, the son is portrayed solely as a problem, a terrifying child that no one can understand, an evil, calculating, rage-filled monster.
Would a post by a person with a mental illness speaking about their own experiences have the same impact?
This would not bother me nearly as much if this wasn’t usually the way it worked in conversations about mental health. When the broader community wants to “learn” about mental health issues, they do not go to people with mental illnesses. They go to their “sane” relatives, or their “sane” allies. In support groups for mental illnesses, for example, the voices of parents are far more privileged than are the voices of their mentally ill children.
I don’t think the perspective of family members or friends of people with mental illnesses are unimportant. But the reality is, those voices usually erase the voices of those with actual mental illnesses. The conversation is dominated by people who are “impacted” by mental illnesses because someone they know suffers from them, or because they have some sort of objective expertise. Meanwhile, those most impacted are shut out of the discussion entirely.
I cannot speak to the experiences of the author’s son. My various disorders are certainly nowhere near what he seems to be manifesting. But I know the frustration of people talking about your problems as if you weren’t in the room. It isn’t just that people don’t acknowledge that the mentally ill should be included in these conversations. It’s that they seem to forget we have a perspective at all.
Which is all kinds of ironic. If people were serious about addressing mental health issues, they would want to talk with people who suffer from mental illnesses. Those are valuable and important perspectives. In fact, they’re the most important and most valid perspectives.
Unfortunately, we’re just problems to be solved.
This, of course, adds to our sense that people with mental illnesses are unable to speak or advocate for themselves. That they have nothing valuable to contribute. That they’re so addled and deranged that they can’t possibly voice their own experiences.
I’m also deeply uncomfortable with the idea that the families or parents of people with mental illnesses are the best advocates for mental health issues.
Often, families will have agendas that are quite problematic, or that are at total odds with what people with mental illnesses actually want. And since the families/parents are the “sane” voices, their experiences are privileged. Moreover, our assumption that parents are best suited to advocate for their kids in these types of situations is based on the premise that parents always act in the best interest of their child. That, sadly, is not always true.
On The Rachel Maddow Show, the expert mentioned that although depressed kids want help, they almost never go to their parents. What he didn’t talk about is the reality that some of those kids won’t talk to their parents because it would not be safe for them to go to their parents. I’ve known people whose parents teased them for their mental illnesses, or who ignored their mental health problems, or who pressured them to go off medication before they were ready, or who denied them access to mental health care, or who told them their mental illnesses were just “character flaws” and they needed to “get over it.”
And unfortunately, sometimes, parents may be the reason why a child develops a mental illness (if, for example, the parent is emotionally or physically abusive).
Even when parents and families do have the best of intentions, they can make horrible, damaging mistakes. Unfortunately, the author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” made one of those in writing her article under her real name. Now her child’s entire mental health history is available on the internet for anyone to read. No matter how horrible her child is, he has the right to privacy, and the right for the media and the internet not to know everything about him without his permission.
[I do think Lisa Long's decision not to use a pseudonym was an honest mistake, since I'm assuming she didn't anticipate her article would go viral. It is still an incredibly damaging mistake for her son and her other children.]
I’m not saying this because I think the author of “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother” article is a bad parent, or is responsible for her child’s mental health issues, or has anything but her child’s best interests in mind. I’m trying to explain how problematic to privilege the voices of parents or relatives in discussions of mentally ill kids.
You cannot have a constructive conversation about mental health care without including – and, yes, privileging – the voices of people with mental illnesses.
And you’re not going to get people with mental illnesses to join the conversation if you dehumanize them, act like they are the problem, or stigmatize them as violent. Which makes me suspect that this “conversation” is not actually about helping people with mental illnesses, but is about giving people an easy target to scapegoat.
3. Mental illness is only important when we think people with mental illness could be violent.
Somewhere around one fourth of all Americans will suffer from mental illnesses at least once in their lives. Most do not have access to adequate mental health resources. Mental illnesses are stigmatized and framed as “character flaws” rather than legitimate illnesses, which makes it even more difficult for people to access help. People with mental illnesses are more likely to be victims of violence. They struggle with getting proper job accommodations and with social stigma. Their voices are ignored and erased from conversations.
Mental illness, and mental health in this country, is an enormous problem.
Yet strangely enough, the only time when anyone seems interested in addressing this problem is when we’re (incorrectly) blaming the mentally ill for violence.
It reminds me of conversations around school bullying, where people argue that we need to curb bullying because the victims might become “troubled” and “violent” later.
Really? That’s why? That’s the problem with bullying?
And the real problem with mental illness is that people might turn violent? Really? Nothing else problematic about mental illness?
First, this whole “more mental health access = less gun violence” plan doesn’t compute. Since most mentally ill people aren’t violent, and most violent people aren’t mentally ill, increasing access to mental health care won’t solve our problem with mass violence.
Second: if you want me to have better mental health care access because you’re afraid I might get violent (as opposed to believing that everyone deserves access to mental health care because good mental health is valuable in-and-of-itself ) then you don’t give much of a shit about me. Or about anyone with mental health issues.
Here’s another way of looking at it: there’s a good chance some of the kids at Sandy Hook will develop mental health problems because of their experiences. Do they deserve mental health care because we want to help them? Or do they need mental health care because they might become “troubled” and “violent”?
Ironically, the people who stigmatize the mentally ill so they can protect the children? May be hurting the very kids they supposedly want to protect.
You know who needs mental health care? Everyone. Low-income families. Communities of color. Rural communities. Non-native English speakers. Children. We need to destigmatize mental illness so that it’s seen as a normal thing people go through, not as a character flaw. But that’s not a conversation anyone seems interested in having.
Instead, we want to look at acts of evil and say: that person is not like me. And if he is not like me, he must be mentally ill.
It’s a distancing technique. And it allows us to abdicate real responsibility for what happened.
I got in an argument on facebook with someone who claimed that “evil” is a mental illness. This attitude, sadly, is a trend. When we don’t understand something – or when we don’t WANT to understand something – we label it as crazy. But in a society that glorifies violence, that allows almost anyone access to assault weapons, a society that celebrates toxic masculinity and aggression, is Sandy Hook really that shocking?
To me, it seems like the logical – if horrifying – conclusion of our gun laws and our obsession with violence and aggression.
Instead of taking on the hard job of actually standing up to the NRA and the politicians and the pro-gun lobby, however, we would rather stigmatize an already marginalized community (and one that had nothing to do with the Sandy Hooks tragedy). After all, it’s so much easier to blame everything on mental illness than to come to a consensus that ASSAULT WEAPONS should not be available to anyone with a photo ID.
We live in a society where we can’t even manage to get stricter gun control after twenty kids are killed. But people with mental illnesses are the dangerous ones.
… yeah, no.
We desperately need to have a conversation about mental illness. We need to talk about access. We need to talk about how we routinely ignore certain segments of the population (especially the poor, the non-white and the non-american) when it comes to access. We need to change the discussion so that mental illness is seen as a legitimate problem, and not as a character flaw. We need to privilege the voices of people with mental illnesses, and acknowledge that they are the experts on their own experiences.
That, sadly, is not the conversation that is happening right now. Because people aren’t that interested in mental illness. They’re interested in easy (and incorrect) answers. They’re interested in blaming easy targets. And they’re interested in distancing themselves from the tragedy.
Like I said at the top of the post, I do not want to have a conversation about mental illness in the wake of the Sandy Hooks tragedy. But if people are going to stigmatize mental illness as a way to avoid looking at reality in the face?
Then yeah, I’m going to talk about it.
* Much thanks to my various friends who let me rant – and ranted with me – yesterday.
** Comments section will be moderated with the Iron Fist of the Feminist Batwoman. Priority for comments section is keeping them a safe space for me and for any other people with mental illnesses who may be reading. Personal attacks or arguments in bad faith would violate that safe space. Remember to use “I” words. And don’t police feelings.
Psst! You! Readers! is CD around?
No? Oh, FANTASTIC. I’m just going to let myself in, then! You guys don’t mind if I take over blogging duties for the day, right? Right!
Yes, yes, it’s me. The Feminist Batwoman. Champion of Intersectional Feminism and Enemy of Restrictive Gender Roles!
I know. Very exciting. I keep meaning to drop in and blog, but C.D. is kinda paranoid, and she doesn’t want me around. Something about the police putting her in jail for
being harboring a vigilante blah blah blah.
Also, she’s convinced that people think SHE’S the Feminist Batwoman. Which is obviously not true. CD and I have actually never met! How can we be the same person if we’ve never met!
Anyway. I think the problem with C.D. is that she just doesn’t have trust. I mean, I love that woman, but… seriously. You guys aren’t going to turn me in, right? I’m the Feminist Batwoman! I fight for Intersectional Feminism and Gender Equality Throughout the Shadows of the Interwebs.
AND I have a fabulous mask. Why would anyone turn me in?
See what I mean about the fabulous mask?
So now that we’ve established that you aren’t going to turn me in, let’s turn back to CD.
Have you guys noticed that she’s a bit… off, recently? She keeps writing about all this UBER-depressing stuff, and going on long rants and freakouts. Now, as the Feminist Batwoman, I fully support long rants and freakouts, but…
I’m worried that CD has lost her joy.
I mean – did you SEE what happened two weeks ago? The American Election? SHE SHOULD BE OVER THE MOON ABOUT THAT! She should be blogging kitten GIFs and celebratory confetti and explosions ALL THE TIME.
The activist joy should be EVERYWHERE!
So, you know. I thought I would cheer up CD (and bring on the return of the Kitten GIFS!) by reminding her of all of our Great Victories this month.
Maybe if CD remembers all the happy things that happened, she’ll be happier! Can’t hurt, right?
Let’s start at the top:
#1: Mitt Romney, oppressive douchebag and plutocrat supreme… Defeated!
I will not have to spend the next four years tracking down and defeating his Legion of Anti-Roe judges! I will not have to fight his attempts to turn over Obamacare and get us in more wars and cut the budget for food stamps and medicare and medicaid and social security and education. And hey, we won’t have to deal with his racism and sexism and homophobia and transphobia and classicism and general… barfiness.
My costume is already SUFFICIENTLY covered in the Barf of Oppression just from fighting to defeat Mitt Romney’s campaign. I’ve had to go to the dry cleaners ten times this election cycle. They’re giving me REALLY weird looks.
Imagine what I would look like if he were president. *shudder*
2. President Obama (a somewhat too-conservative-for-my-taste but generally pretty-decent- president) won. And President Obama is someone I can work with. He’s the man who brought us Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan and Obamacare and who ended Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and who passed the mini-dream act. He saved the economy and made insurance companies cover contraceptives and signed the Lilly Ledbetter fair pay law. He passed a bill that made it a hate-crime to commit an assault on someone based on their sexual orientation; he extended employment benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees and he became the FIRST SITTING US PRESIDENT to come out in favor of marriage equality. Oh, and he extended health insurance to four million uninsured kids (why, in the name of the Holy Batmobile, do we have FOUR MILLION uninsured kids in the richest country in the world? QUESTIONS).
Like I said. I can work with this guy.
All good news so far, right? All news that should make CD happy, right?
It gets better.
3. In Maryland, Maine and Washington, people voted to legalize same-sex marriage. YES THEY DID. We broke the 32-state losing streak (including a loss in my – I MEAN CD’s – home state of Wisconsin) with a three state victory! We finally got a popular victory for same-sex marriage!
(although I object to people’s fundamental human rights being put on the ballot, but if they’re going to be put on the ballot, this is the desired outcome)
Moreover, Minnesota had an amendment on the ballot that would have defined marriage as between one man and one woman. You know what happened? Voters said NO. AGAIN FOR THE FIRST TIME
I’d like to take this opportunity to congratulate my fellow Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance member, The Queer Question (also known as Renee Montoya), who led the charge in the fight for same-sex marriage. The Question knows how to stop the Forces of Oppression, y’all.
Has CD cheered up by now? If she hasn’t, I have even MORE good news for her (because this election is just the gift that keeps on giving).
4. The next American congress will have the highest number of female senators in recorded history: twenty
(which: it is super-gross that 20 is a HIGH number of women in the senate. But we’re getting better).
And let’s talk about those women! Because it’s not just that we’ve got more women senators and representatives – it’s that the ones we’ve got are incredible.
Elizabeth Warren won a senate seat in Massachusetts. I’m quite fond of that woman. She scares Wall Street half-to-death, and is already fighting the Forces of Economic Oppression. Go Warren!
Tammy Baldwin WON A SENATE SEAT in Wisconsin! Tammy Baldwin is now Wisconsin’s first female senator – and the first openly gay member of the senate in US HISTORY.
I’m a huge fan of Tammy Baldwin’s. She’s been
my CD’s representative for years (since I’m CD is from Madison). Her work in the House was incredible; and I fully expect great things in the Senate.
CD, of course, was terrified that Tammy Baldwin – an openly gay woman from the hellmouth of hippie-liberalville (Madison) would have no chance of being elected in Wisconsin. And I do like proving CD wrong.
Claire McCaskill defeated Todd Akin (aka: “Mr. Legitimate Rape”). She won the Mississippi Senate seat – one that almost NO ONE thought a democrat could hang onto – by fourteen points. Because she is an incredible campaigner and she knew how to let Todd Akin hang himself by his own rope.
And to cap off our list of amazing women senators, Mazie Hirono won Hawaii’s open senate seat, thus making history as the USA’S first Asian American female senator. Whoo!
My good friend and fellow Anti-Oppression Superhero, the Anti-Racist Black Bat (Cassandra Cain) (who happens to be one of the few Asian members of the DC Universe) is REALLY excited about Mazi Hirono’s election.
Cassandra is also rather pissed that it took until 2012 for an Asian-American woman to be elected to the Senate.
The fun doesn’t even stop with senators! The great state of Illinois elected Tammy Duckworth to the House of Representatives. Duckworth served in the Iraq war, where she lost both legs. She is the first female war veteran with disabilities elected to the US House of Representatives.
You will not be surprised to know that Disability Rights Oracle (Barbara Gordon) was thoroughly pleased by Duckworth’s election!
And the great State of Hawaii elected Tulsi Gabbard, another female war veteran – AND the first Hindu member of the US House of Representatives.
But the best part of this election – and yes, we haven’t even gotten to the best part yet – wasn’t just that a League of Awesome Women were elected.
5. It was that the League of Awesome Women (in conjunction with the Anti-Oppression Superheroes) defeated the Evil Alliance of Rape Apologists.
Senate candidate Richard “Rape Babies are a Gift From God” Mourdock? DEFEATED.
Senate candidate Todd “If It’s A Legitimate Rape, the Female Body has ways to Shut That Whole Thing Down” Akin? DEFEATED!
House candidate John “The Rape thing” Koster? DEFEATED.
House candidate Joe “‘there is no such exception as life of the mother” Walsh? DEFEATED. By the way, Mr. Walsh, if pregnancy can’t actually kill women, what happened to Savita Halappanavar?
Vice Presidential Candidate Paul “Rape is just another method of conception” Ryan? DEFEATED.
All congratulations are due to The Consent Culture Batgirl (Stephanie Brown) who took point in the Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance’s battle with the Evil League of Rape Apologists. I think we can agree she did a pretty fabulous job, no?
So, overall, I think the forces of Anti-Oppression did pretty well this election cycle, no?
We defeated the forces of oppression and darkness and plutocracy! We brought down the Evil Alliance of Rape Apologists! We elected a swath of Awesome Women!
Its definitely party time at the Anti-Oppression Superhero Alliance Headquarters, if you know what I mean!
(No, I don’t mean an orgy. Get your minds out of the gutter).
Party! Party! Party!
And I totally think CD should join us in this great party of activist joy, don’t you? Now that she’s undoubtedly been cheered up by all our good news!
I mean, come on. We won! Time to stop moping and stop ranting and smell the Victory Flowers, no? Or else CD is going to go all Batman, and be angsty 99% of the time, and no one wants that, do they?
It’s time to bring the joy to CD, ANTI-OPPRESSION PARTY STYLE!
I’m just going to check CD’s agenda book and see when she’s got a free slot for the party, shall I? Then we can all persuade her to go.
Huh. Can’t find CD.’s agenda, but… there’s this blog post draft on CD’s computer. I’ll just go ahead and read it (Hey, I’M not Consent Culture Batgirl. Privacy is not my only priority. Also, CD and I are
the same person friends!)
Well, this blog post is disturbing.
And by disturbing, I mean:
Montana voters passed a state ballot measure that puts in place a parental notification law: any person under the age of 16 who seeks an abortion needs to notify their parents. A PARENTAL NOTIFICATION LAW?
Well, HOW COULD THAT POSSIBLY GO WRONG?
OH GREAT, and IT KEEPS GOING.
After helping to pass Texas’ abortion sonogram law, Texas State Senator Dan Patrick is trying to cut off Rural Texans’ access to abortion. Because there’s nothing Dan Patrick cares about more than controlling women’s personal medical decisions!
The head of the Maine Republican party thinks there was voter fraud, because “dozens’ of black people showed up to vote, and no one in rural Maine knows any black people! Mitt Romney says Obama won because he gave “gifts” to women, young people, Latinos etc. Paul Ryan blames the urban vote (*cough* people of color *cough*).
Okay, I know I was complaining that CD seems really pissed off these days? BUT THIS? THIS IS PISSING ME OFF ALL OVER AGAIN.
Scott Walker is trying to end same-day registration in Wisconsin, because the best way to follow up an election full of voter suppression is MORE voter suppression.
In Kansas, the city of Selina passed a proposition that overturns the city’s protections from discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. The City of Hutchinson also overturned their city’s discrimination protections.
Proposition 35 passed in California. It raises the penalty for those convicted of sex trafficking to as high as life in prison, which SOUNDS great, until you figure out that survivor groups were against the proposition. Why? Because the bill conflates sex trafficking and sex work, which means that both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors could be penalized, put in jail, put on sex offender registries etc. The bill will probably have a much worse effect on sex workers and victims than it will on actual bad guys. Melissa Gira Grant wrote a smarter and longer analysis of the problems with Proposition 35.
… And Oklahoma passed a constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action practices in state government hiring, education and contracting. But that’s okay, because apparently they weren’t using affirmative action anyway! And it’s not like there’s institutional racism or sexism in the USA, because, as everyone knows, we live in a post-racist and sexist society.
… yeah, okay. Maybe there’s a reason CD is still angry. Hell, I’M ANGRY.
You know what? Victory party canceled. We can have a victory party later. I can use the streamers to tie up some misogynists. Kyriarchy-Blasting Wonder Woman can use the helium from the balloons to power her invisible jet. We can throw the confetti in the eyes of the racists.
CD’s right. Our activism isn’t over, not even after this victory. People are still being oppressive asshats. A woman’s ability to choose is still under fire. People of color are still being targetted. Homophobia is still ruining lives. Misogyny is still rampant.
Time to get back to work.
ANTI-OPPRESSION SUPERHERO ALLIANCE, ASSEMBLE!
Oh, uh – before I leave to go fight oppression, could you guys do me a favor?
Could you NOT tell CD that I was here?
Like, keep it all hush-hush?
Also, you really don’t have to mention that I changed my mind and actually, we can’t celebrate yet because there are so many other things wrong in the world we need to deal with.
She doesn’t need to know she was right. That woman is not a gracious winner.
Just keep it… quiet, is my point. Okay? Okay!
Great! I’ll be back soon, faithful readers! In the meantime, I will go forth into the Shadowy Corners of the Interwebs and Fight Against Restrictive Gender Roles and All the Other Forces of Oppression!
Until next time.
- Your Friendly Interweb Feminist Batwoman.
CD HERE. WHAT THE HELL DID YOU DO WITH MY BLOG, FEMINIST BATWOMAN?
… oh, fuck. I knew I shouldn’t have
had that half-glass of beer and put on the mask left my computer unattended. The Feminist Batwoman is devious. Super-devious. And in no way related to me. Ignore the shot of my shoulder in the last picture. That’s not my shoulder. I’m not the Feminist Batwoman. Yeah. I had nothing to do with this.
I need to change my passwords. AGAIN.
Anyway. Sorry about that, everyone. I’ll try to
stay away from the mask keep a better eye on my computer in the future.
Although I do agree with the Feminist Batwoman’s point. We did win a big victory this November, and we should celebrate. But we should remember that there’s still a war on. It’s not time to lay down our weapons yet.
As Consent Culture Batgirl always says:
- I’m not ready for this to be the end of the fight. There’s so much ground to cover still. More misogyny and racism and homophobia and ableism and transphobia and oppression to uncover and stop. A new, better society to build.
- What are you still fighting for?
- ETA 2: Okay, FINE, ONE CELEBRATORY KITTEN GIF. But only because of the marriage victories in Maryland, Maine and Washington and Minnesota. And because of Tammy Duckworth and Tammy Baldwin and Claire McCaskill and Elizabeth Warren and Maizie Hirono and Tulsi Gabbard.
Question: Let’s say your wife doesn’t want to get in the shower. So you grab her, pick her up, and shove her into the shower while she screams and yells for you to let go. For good measure, you pin her to the wall while she keeps screaming.
Is that abuse?
Not on Grey’s Anatomy, it isn’t!
[no, but seriously, it is abuse]
[It's also domestic violence]
I, uh – I can’t really believe I’m writing this post. Because, I mean, Grey’s Anatomy has done a lot of stupid stuff over the years but – surely – SURELY – they didn’t just portray domestic violence in a positive light? Surely that didn’t happen. Surely I was imagining it.
… No, wait, I didn’t. It actually happened.
The fuck is wrong with you, Grey’s Anatomy?
And yes, I know, I just admitted to watching Grey’s Anatomy. In my defense, I kind of gave up on it after the Ghost Sex season. Yes, I rewatched the first two seasons during my finals – but only because it reminded me that my life, though stressful, could be a lot worse.
It could be scripted by Shonda Rhimes.
But then this fall, my Romantic Interest (hereafter known as the Feminist Philosopher) got me to watch Grey’s Anatomy with him on a regular basis. And I will admit I’ve been enjoying it. Mostly in a “let’s point out how terrible this plot is” way. Or a “oh, that dialogue was just terrible” way. And sometimes in a “Cristina Yang is my spiritual guru and I will do whatever she tells me to do” way.
Intermingled with my love for Cristina Yang and my enjoyment of the terrible dialogue, however, is a slow-simmering outrage over the show’s treatment of the newly-disabled characters.
Quick recap: at the end of last season, a bunch of the doctors were in an airplane crash. Two of the principal characters – Lexie and Mark – died. Arizona Robbins’ leg was crushed, and later amputated against her wishes. Cristina Yang was diagnosed with reactive psychosis.
The way Grey’s Anatomy is dealing with Cristina and Arizona is killing me. KILLING me. It’s like they’ve got a bingo card of how NOT to write about disability, and they’re trying to check off EVERY SINGLE BOX.
For a while, I held it in. It was just a slow-simmering outrage, and a couple of rants. But Episode 3 (“Love the One You’re With”) officially pushed me over the top. The scene where Callie abuses her wife, Arizona and NO ONE CALLED IT OUT?
And it wasn’t a gross moment? It was a big “Oh, finally, Arizona will realize that her disability makes Callie unhappy too!” moment.
Yeah, that was the end of Ms. Nice Feminist.
NO MORE MS. NICE FEMINIST.
CALLIE ABUSED HER WIFE AND YOU MADE IT SEEM JUSTIFIED.
FUCK YOU GREY’S ANATOMY.
Okay. I’m calm. I’m totally calm. I can write this in a calm and mature manner.
Before we get to the problem of Arizona Robbins (who, let me remind you, was ASSAULTED BY HER WIFE), let’s start with the Case of My Spiritual Guru, Cristina Yang.
After the rescuers finally show up and save everyone, Cristina lapses into a catatonic state, punctuated with brief moments of rage and violence. Her doctors diagnose her with reactive psychosis.
Now, in a perfect world, Cristina’s friends and family would be like “Oh, yeah, she’s got a mental illness because she was in a plane crash and survived for a week with no food/water/medical help and she was keeping all these other people alive. Not super surprising. Let’s let her get the care she needs!
… And if you think that’s how things actually went down, I have a piece of the True Cross I’d like to sell you.
Here’s what actually happened. Cristina Yang is diagnosed with reactive psychosis, and then…
Cue scene where Owen (Cristina’s estranged husband) yells to the psych ward chief that he won’t let them take Cristina to the psyche ward. Cue scene where Owen – the chief of surgery – essentially prevents his wife from getting adequate medical care because he doesn’t want her to go to the psych ward. Cue scene where Meredith, Cristina’s best friend, grabs her by the shoulders and tells her to “snap out of it” because if Cristina doesn’t “snap out of it,” she’ll be put in the psych ward and “pumped full of anti-psychotics.’ Which is apparently the worst thing ever, since anti-psychotics will strip Cristina’s identity away (#NotActuallyHowAntiPsychoticsWorkMeredith) (#SeriouslyYouWentThroughMedSchoolAndYouDontKnowThis?)
Meredith and Owen fight tooth and claw to keep Cristina from going to the psych ward and getting psych treatment. Do you think they would fight to keep her out of the hospital if she’d gotten pneumonia? Would they be screaming at her and telling her if she didn’t “snap out of it,” she’d be pumped full of antibiotics and her personality would be totally changed?
Of course not.
This is gross on so many levels, I can’t even. As usual, mental illnesses are treated as if they’re The Worst Thing Ever, as opposed to, you know, just another set of illnesses. And Grey’s Anatomy acts like Cristina getting psychosis is the Worst Thing Ever.
Psychosis is the Worst Thing Ever, y’all! THE WORST THING EVER.
And going to the psych ward is the other Worst Thing Ever.
Meredith and Owen’s behavior reinforces the stigmatization of mental illness. PSYCHOSIS, OOOGA BOOOGA. Whereas Owen and Meredith would recognize that pneumonia is an illness, that catching pneumonia is not a person’s fault, and that a person with pneumonia needs TREATMENT, they act like mental illnesses are a character flaw. Psychosis is a stigma, a brand to be avoided at any cost. Cristina can just “snap out of it.” And if she goes to the psych ward and received proper, adequate treatment for her “condition,” she’ll officially be a “psychotic person” and that would be the Worst Thing Ever. Because mental illnesses are the worst thing ever blah blah blah.
Someone shoot me.
Mental illnesses are just that: illnesses. Like all other illnesses, they require treatment. And honestly, to deprive Cristina of treatment tailored to her illness because you don’t want her to go to the “psych ward” (OOOGA BOOOGA) and you don’t want her to take “anti-psychotics” is tantamount to medical abuse.
Grey’s Anatomy always makes a huge deal about ultra-religious parents who refuse to allow their child to get proper medical care. Don’t they realize they’re doing the same thing with Cristina?
(Well, of course not, because Mental Illnesses are different, and Cristina can’t be Psychotic GRAB THE FAINTING COUCH).
As a person with several mental illnesses, let me be the first to say “FUCK YOU, GREY’S ANATOMY.” You know what? I’ve been pretty close to catatonic in the super-severe phases of my depressions. I’ve never been put on anti-psychotics, but they were on the table, and they still are (some of them can be very helpful to managing depression. Who knew?). I’ve never been to a psych ward, but if things got bad enough, I would hope that the psych ward stigma wouldn’t be enough to keep me away.
The attitude the show – and Owen and Meredith – display towards mental illnesses is precisely the reason it took me twenty five minutes to type up the previous paragraph: because it is so fucking scary to come out as a person with mental illnesses. The attitude of “mental illnesses are the Worst Things Ever” and “mental illnesses mean you’re Crazy” do hurt people with actual mental illnesses. That attitude is part of the reason I was pushed by certain members of my family to keep my depression a secret and to get off anti-depressants as fast as possible (as opposed to when I was ready).
So yeah, FUCK YOU, GREY’S ANATOMY.Th
The show’s treatment of Cristina gets even worse in the scene where Owen (her estranged husband) takes her home and bathes her.
Ick. Ick, ick, ick, ick, ick.
Because Cristina and Owen were more or less estranged before the plane crash. So Cristina’s estranged husband managing her entire life, bathing her, controlling her, while Cristina herself is still catatonic and unable to give consent? Cristina’s estranged husband discussing, in vivid detail, how the rest of Cristina’s life will go? Cristina’s estranged husband deciding what kind of medical treatment she’ll get (or won’t get)?
Cristina and Owen are no longer in a relationship where there’s some kind of consent implied for these big, major medical decisions. She never gave consent for him to take care of her, and she can’t do it now, since she can’t talk. So yeah, in this context, it is really gross that Owen basically takes control of her entire life.
The worst part is that the bathing scene is meant to be romantic and loving. Oooh, look at Owen, standing by his catatonic woman, taking care of her, isn’t he the Bestest?
No… he’s not. Bodily autonomy and consent is a thing. You don’t lose it when you go through mental or physical illnesses.
And also, using a person’s illness and/or disability to prove how generous and self-sacrificing YOU are is suuuuuper-gross. Don’t do it. Ever.
Which, fittingly, brings me to the case of Arizona Robbins.
Reminder of Arizona’s condition: her leg was amputated shortly after she was rescued from the plane crash. Although Arizona did not want her leg amputated, at some point she started dying and was unable to give consent for medical procedures, so her wife (and doctor) Callie gave consent to an amputation.
(Question one: why is Callie, Arizona’s WIFE, her doctor? Oh, never mind, this is Grey’s Anatomy where that sort of thing is TOTALLY okay)
Post-amputation, Arizona is super-pissed at Callie for deciding to go ahead with the surgery without Arizona’s condition. She’s also unhappy and depressed and generally in a state of rage over losing her leg.
Now, I will gladly admit that Arizona has not been a particularly pleasant person in the wake of the crash and losing her leg. I would also like to point out that there’s no “right” way to react to severe trauma, and Arizona is not a bad person for not being all smiles and rainbows post-amputation. You cannot control the way you feel.
Hell, I don’t even think there’s anything wrong with Callie being upset and angry and sad at Arizona. You can’t control the way you feel; Callie is not a bad person for having normal human emotions.
But if you can’t control the way you feel, you can, however, control how you ACT on your feelings.
Cue the end of Episode 3. Callie comes home to find Arizona has left her wheelchair. Arizona apparently tried to go to the bathroom without help, but collapsed and urinated on herself.
Callie orders Arizona to take a shower. Arizona refuses.
Okay, yes, Arizona is being a bit silly. Then again, Arizona has just discovered, for what must be the 90th time, that she can’t do even the simplest tasks on her own anymore. And she’s coming to terms with the fact that she’s going to go through a long, hard process of rehabilitation and relearning her body. That’s not something “easy” to go through. It’s not something most people can just “get over.”
But you know what? Even if Arizona’s behavior had been completely unjustified, there is still NO EXCUSE for what Callie did next.
Arizona refuses to take the shower.
Callie picks her up and shoves her into the shower. Arizona screams for Callie to let her go, and get out; Callie slams Arizona against the shower wall and holds her there while Arizona keeps screaming.
DOMESTIC ABUSE. DOMESTIC ABUSE. DOMESTIC ABUSE.
And yes, Callie is super-emotional and crying. And yes, Callie yells “There’s nowhere for me to go; this is my life now too!”
BUT IT’S STILL DOMESTIC ABUSE.
Least you think I’m exaggerating about the violence of the scene, see for yourself. And this, by the way, is AFTER the grabbing and shoving:
Sadly, because I am female and I grew up in the USA, I only believed my own conclusions about the Super-Gross-Abuse-Scene-Of-Doom AFTER a person of the male gender independently came to the same conclusion. Fortunately, I happened to have a person of the male gender sitting right next to me when the Super-Gross scene happened:
The Feminist Philosopher paused the video and turned to me.
Feminist Philosopher: Well. That just happened.”
Me: “Uh, yeah. You saw the same thing I did.”
Feminist Philosopher: “Callie assaulting Arizona? Yup. Suuuper gross.
So yeah, it’s not just Team Culturally Disoriented Seeing Things over here. Hell, I don’t understand why anyone – anyone – would look at this scene and not go “Jesus H. Christ, what the hell is going on here.”
Hey, I’ll tell you what the hell is going on:
CALLIE ABUSED ARIZONA.
And no one has called it. Not on the show, not – as far as I can tell – in the world of the internet.
So I’m calling it now: Callie Torres physically abused Arizona Robbins. It happened. It is domestic violence.
This is not a “normal” couples argument. This is not okay. This is abuse.
Okay, I can hear the critics now. What does this scene – gross as it was – have to do with disability? Callie’s treatment of Arizona is abuse regardless of Arizona’s condition, right?
If we unpack the scene a bit more, however, it’s pretty clear that Callie’s actions are intimately connected to the show’s attitude towards disability.
There’s a reason why this scene isn’t played as domestic violence. There’s a reason it’s framed to make Callie seem “justified.”
Indeed, from the first episode of the new season, Arizona’s disability has been framed in terms of its effect on Callie’s life. It’s about Callie’s feelings. Callie’s sadness. Callie’s struggles. Callie’s torment. Callie’s guilt. Hell, we don’t even SEE Arizona in the first episode – until we discover she’s lost her leg.
And we don’t see her much in the next few episodes – except when she’s interacting with Callie.
Then we get this beautifully revolting scene in Episode 2, where Callie tells Owen that “the person in that bed” isn’t Arizona, but just a shell of a person with all of Arizona removed. Callie says she thinks that if Arizona loses her leg, Callie will never get Arizona back again.
And Owen then says he doesn’t think he’ll ever get Cristina – his still-catatonic wife – back.
Let’s just back up and look at how Owen and Callie have taken their significant others’ Huge Illnesses and made it All About Them.
We need to save Arizona’s leg so Callie gets her back. We need to make Cristina un-psychotic so Owen gets her back.
Wow, I never realized that when people suffer through traumatic illnesses and injuries, their experiences don’t matter at all! It’s All About The People Around Them!
I’m learning so many new things from this show.
Look, being the partner/friend/significant other/family of a disabled or chronically ill person is not easy. And those people deserve support and help and sympathy. My problem isn’t that Grey’s Anatomy showcases Owen and Callie’s emotional meltdowns. My problem is that the show does it AT THE EXPENSE of Arizona and Cristina.
Despite the fact that Arizona and Cristina are the ones actually dealing with trauma and disabilities, their stories are secondary. Their emotions are far less important than those of Callie and Owen’s. The show centers on Callie and Owen’s sadness at their wives’ illnesses/disability, and on how generous Callie/Owen are to stick with them.
Arizona is relegated to the role of a symbol. She’s not important for herself, but for what she represents – Callie’s tragedy, Callie’s sacrifice, Callie’s generosity, Callie’s emotional struggles.
Hell, Arizona isn’t even able to define herself anymore – it’s Callie who decides that Arizona is “not her wife” anymore, but just a person with all the Arizona scraped out. How Arizona feels, we don’t know.
The show’s writers took Arizona’s voice away and made her silent in her own tragedy.
And what does Callie yell to her wife as she’s pushing her into the shower? Why does she think it’s okay for her to abuse Arizona?
“This is my life now too!”
This is my life now too.
It’s not Arizona’s life anymore. It’s Callie’s. By virtue of Arizona’s disability, she has become less of a person. She’s been relegated to the symbolic.
You know what? This is not Callie’s life. It’s not. Arizona’s life is Arizona’s life. Arizona’s body is her body.
If Callie can’t handle Arizona’s behavior, she can try to have an honest conversation with her. She can go to therapy. You know what? If it’s too much for Callie to deal with, CALLIE CAN LEAVE ARIZONA. She can divorce her. Callie has somewhere else to go. She has a choice. She’s choosing to stay with Arizona.
Arizona, on the other hand, really does have nowhere else to go. She can’t just “leave’ her body when she gets sick of it. This is her reality. This is her life. This is her body.
It’s not Callie’s.
I don’t mean to diminish Callie’s very real pain, or Arizona’s very real vitriol over the past few episodes. But I’m sick of illness and disability being portrayed as “harder” on the family/friends/whatever than on the person experiencing them. I’m sick of shows using disability as a way to show OTHER characters’ emotional struggles and generosity.
I’m sick of narratives that tell us that people with disabilities are less-than-human, that they’re just a broken version of a more perfect person. I’m sick of narratives where Meredith get to say that treatment for a mental illness will strip your identity away. Where Callie gets to say that her wife’s accident has made her “not-Arizona.”
Hell, I’m not even sure why I’m so surprised by this. Grey’s Anatomy has always treated illness and disability as symbols. In the show, the disabled body is nothing more than a shiny toy for doctors to have fun with. People with disabilities are only important insofar as they are symbols. They’re not people.
People with disabilities are not broken. We are not symbols. We are people.
Screw you, Grey’s Anatomy.
The worst part of the abuse – and yes, we have only just now gotten to the worst part – is that its for Arizona’s own good. Supposedly.
In Callie’s Super-Important Surgical Case (right before the Shower Scene), her underage patient wants to run off and complete a sailing competition even though it’ll mean losing her leg. Callie tells the patient’s parents that they need to stop her. They need to be her parents. They need to be “the bad guy” so they can save their daughter.
And, of course, because this is Grey’s Anatomy and Grey’s Anatomy has the subtlety of a GIANT SLEDGEHAMMER, Callie’s case is a metaphor for her personal life, and how she needs to be the “bad guy” with Arizona.
In this little equation, Arizona has been transformed into a child. A child. And Callie is her PARENT.
The whole “people with disabilities are just like children” meme has been well-overplayed. Don’t think I didn’t notice the infantilization of Arizona. Don’t think I didn’t notice that she peed on herself (childhood!) and had to be cleaned by her wife/parent (infantilizing!). Don’t think I didn’t notice that you did exactly the same thing with Cristina in the scene where she’s being bathed by Owen (infantalizing!)
Disabled people are not children. We’re not, thank you very much.
And Arizona is not a child. Arizona is a grown-ass woman. Losing her leg does not mean she lost her right to control her own life. Her body is hers. Her life is hers. You do not get to choose what she does with them, even if you think she’s hurting herself.
You cannot control adults’ lives for their own good. You cannot shove your wife into a shower for her own good (you can’t do that to your kid either, actually, because that too is abuse). You cannot take your estranged wife back to your house without her permission and give her a bath (yes, I’m back to Cristina). You cannot choose your estranged wife’s psychological treatment.
That is abuse.
Look, I get it. You see sick people, hurt people, you want to help them. They say no. You say “it’s for your own good.”
But that’s NOT OKAY. You cannot help people without their consent. You cannot force people to do things “for their own good.”
Not after they’re 18 anyway.
Look, this isn’t some kind of fringe issue. People with disabilities are up to four times more likely than abled people to be abused by partners or caretakers. Four times. And part of the reason they’re more likely to be abused – and less likely to seek help (or to get it when they go to the authorities) – is because of stupid narratives like these.
Narratives that emphasize the pain and the generosity of the caregivers and the partners at the expense of the actual people with disabilities. Narratives that portray people with disabilities as children. Narratives that portray abuse as something done for the person’s own good.
Who would ever believe that a woman so generous and selfless that she would stay married to a cripple would commit an act of domestic violence? It wasn’t abuse! It was for Arizona’s own good.
Fuck you very much, Grey’s Anatomy.
Callie abused Arizona.
You showed it as something good and romantic and cathartic.
Fuck you, Grey’s Anatomy.
Arizona and Cristina are not symbols. They’re not tragic parts of other peoples’ lives. They’re not children. They’re not broken. They’re people with real pain and real lives and real stories. So please start treating them that way.
And please don’t give me any Arizona/Callie scenes for another few weeks. I honestly can’t look at Callie without wanting to call the Seattle cops. SHE ABUSED HER WIFE. Send her to therapy.
As a final note: CALLIE ABUSED HER WIFE.
Just say that over and over to yourself until it sinks in.
*In order to thank the Feminist Philosopher, who re-introduced me to Grey’s Anatomy AND who was kind enough to let me rant at him for a REALLY long time without ever telling me that I was exaggerating or that I should calm down… I will finish this blog by saying: FUCK YOU, DAVID BROOKS.
**ALSO, if you are in the Montreal area, you should go see the play Inherit the Wind, which is going up at McGill Player’s Theater, November 14-17 & 21-24, 8:00 PM. GO SEE IT. I saw it last night, and my reaction was something like this:
It was pretty damn near perfection. And I’m not just saying that because I know a lot of the people in it and I baked cookies for their bake sale (if I hated it, I would just NOT TALK ABOUT IT on the blog).
GO SEE IT.
oh, here’s a review.