awkwardly

Friday

Using mental illness to discredit people.

[I wrote the following on Sep 25 as a video response to Brian Sapient, the General Pervez Musharaf of "Rational Response Squad", after he made some videos arguing that religion is a mental illness. I let too much time pass and now it would be stale to post a reply. But that part of me that thinks everything I write is gold won't let me throw it out, so I'm posting it to Awkwardly. Behold the gold: ]


You, my dear viewer, are an asshole.

I'm sure you're shocked to hear it. You've never met a mentally ill person before. But how else could you explain my rude behavior? You've never seen an average, normal, functioning person be so rude as to call anyone an asshole before. Have you?

Well, maybe all the people you've heard calling each other asshole were a little mentally ill. Why not share the wealth? Plenty of diagnoses to go around. I can be a little ill, you can be a little ill. Pretty soon there's nobody left who's mentally healthy.

I apologize. I was wrong to call you an asshole.

Now you can be doubly sure I'm mentally ill. I was rude and then I vacillated about it. My opinion changes with the wind. I'm practically bipolar. Normal people don't get angry or misbehave or change their minds. Do you?

There's been a blossoming of newer diagnoses of mental illness in recent years, including some of the same old illnesses viewed in more people. Maybe they're right. Maybe millions more people have felt comfortable going to a doctor and admitting they have a problem like depression. Maybe it's been underreported in the past because ppl were afraid of to admit they need a shrink.

But somewhere between the psychiatrists and our culture embracing the floodwave of diagnoses, we've developed a tendency to see mental illness in everyone. Not just in the most abnormal people, but in any behavior or thought or belief that deviates from an idealized norm of perfection. A completely unrealistic norm, because nobody's that perfect.

Instead of defining everyone outside the norm as mentally ill, we've moved the goalposts so that every facet of human behavior is some degree of mental illness. Everywhere you can stand on Earth has been redefined as the endzone, so there's no point playing the game any more.

I'm not sure how much to blame psychiatrists for this tendency, but I'm pretty sure some of the blame falls on armchair psychiatrists. You watch Dr. Phil and Dr. Drew and Dr. Laura, and they make it look so easy. They've demystified enough of the jargon that you feel comfortable throwing it around or trying it on. Even square old Country singers joke that "De Nile ain't a river in Egypt."

It makes you feel smart to understand that jargon. But it's a very shallow understanding. It's like you could watch the first ten minutes of an episode of Star Trek, any series or spin-off they made. Something goes wrong with the ship. They have to fix it or they're all going to die. Then in real life the power goes out and you don't get to see how it ends. Your kid sister who hasn't watched as many episodes says, "Oh no. How will they fix it?"

"That's easy," you say. "They'll just reverse the polarity on the dilithium crystals, reroute power from the starboard nacell, and turn the oscillation overthruster up to eleven."

Wow. You know a lot about starships. Now go build one.

That's what your shallow understanding of psychiatry is equivalent to. It's based on stereotypes absorbed from a few movies and tv shows and magazine articles. Maybe a couple books or intro psych classes. Why is it that people can watch a ten minute video blog and diagnose somebody as mentally ill based on a special episode of Oprah they watched, but they wouldn't think to diagnose a physical problem in somebody? Okay, some assholes will act like armchair MDs too, but everybody seems to think they're qualified to run a psych ward.

Maybe the reason psychiatry seems so easy to do and so easy to tear apart, is that people are willing to talk about it and critique it without really knowing it.

Hell, any idiot can clamp a stethoscope around their neck and figure out the business end of a tongue depressor. It must be easy telling people when they got pneumonia or a sprained ankle. Being a medical doctor seems so easy to me, due to my ignorance, I bet it's all a scam. They just make stuff up and charge you five hundred bucks. Anyone could do that. It sure seems like anyone could do that, as long as you familiarize yourself with the stereotypes and don't learn anything substantial about it.

The really ugly part is that the wave of classifying everything as mental illness drops to this level, where a person just diagnoses his ideological opponents as having a mental illness.

He's not doing it because he sees those people suffering and he wants to help them. He's using the power of stigma to discredit his opponents. Even little kids on a playground recognize the stigma of mental illness. Have you lost your marbles? Are you cuckoo for coco puffs? All at once you're saying they're abnormal, their thinking is flawed, they're defective, and they deserve to be shunned.

People are so desperately afraid of getting labelled "nuts," some of them will avoid seeing a shrink because they're afraid others will find out. Even when they know they have a problem and they're convinced a psychiatrist could help. Some people will die because stigma keeps them from getting help. Some people will kill or break the law because stigma prevents them from getting help.

That's why it's incredibly ugly when someone uses the stigma of mental illness as a rhetorical tool. While you're accomplishing nothing against these theists who are just as stubborn as you are, there's some atheist following your conversation who's becoming collateral damage of your attack. He doesn't need convincing that god is a myth, but he might take you seriously about how defective and subhuman crazy people are. Even people who seem to function okay and hold a job and be happpy. He can see your contempt for them and he'll get the message loud and clear that having depression or obsessive/compulsive disorder is not something he should get treatment for. Because someone could see him going to the shrink or someone could drop docs on him about his illness.

So maybe he doesn't kill himself or anyone else. Maybe he just suffers through it an extra year or two before finally getting some help.

It's not worth it, just so some uncaring shmuck can use mental illness as a rhetorical volleyball. You think you're using a great weapon against theists, but the collateral damage is anyone with real mental illness having to hear your ignorant ass.

And it's not that they're so sensitive they'll all break down in tears. The danger is in demonizing mental illness so much that people won't seek treatment.

Your desire to score points in the religious debate would not be worth that cost, even if your understanding of psychiatry was accurate.

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