Anyone who gets a firsthand glimpse of the health challenges caused by mental illness will soon see how often these conditions and the people who face them are misunderstood, maligned, rejected or distrusted.
Whether you look out on a professional like me, a relative of someone who is suffering, or someone who feels the painful breakdown of their thoughts, feelings, and actions, you quickly understand that mental illness still carries an undeserved form of contempt. The term for this is stigma.
In the past decade or more, we began to think that there were finally signs that this harmful social phenomenon was fading. You can find primetime TV commercials for psychiatric drugs or print ads in major magazines; you could hear prominent people in the entertainment or sports world talking openly about their mental health. During the pandemic, almost everyone experienced the stress, anxiety and disruption caused by this global crisis and felt a new appreciation that mental health was indeed an essential part of health, as real as any other type of illness. But just like with the Covid-19 virus, the stigma is not going away.
Recently, another example of attributing false assumptions to people with mental illness hit the headlines after a celebrity publicly expressed his anti-Semitic views.
They were casually dismissed by some as being distracted from his mental health issues which he had previously freely disclosed.
It was like they were saying, “What do you expect? He has a mental illness.”
The actions of someone who is anti-Semitic, racist or bigoted in any way should not be simply dismissed as a symptom of their mental state. To do so is a misinformed conclusion that harms both people with mental illness and groups targeted by such prejudice.
Making a connection between mental illness and intolerance is a complicated matter. One does not lead to the other. While both can exist in an individual, they usually do not. Similarly, mental illness and violence – the vast majority of the time – do not co-exist. To be clear, mental illness is not a character flaw, but neither is the character flaw of racism a proof of mental illness. A hate-stained personality is not a symptom of mental illness.
As for this celebrity, I suspect he may not understand the impact of his hateful messages, nor the dangerous consequences they could have for our country or for himself. All of us, mentally ill or not, are responsible for our words and actions.
But could social ills like racism, bigotry and stigma have something in common? Could it be another sign of our culture’s often ubiquitous but hidden caste system that sticks to it like glue? By that I mean the tendency we have to separate people who are different from us, as if to place them on some ladder of hierarchy and privilege, where those who are higher are seen as better and the rights and benefits of the society are worth more than those who are lower.
Perhaps it would be more fruitful to focus on the work our entire society needs to do to dismantle the false idea that some people are better than others, to purge our laws and practices of racism and hatred, and to humble our hearts searching for the truth that we are all in this together. I suspect our future depends on it.
Phil Wyzik is CEO of Monadnock Family Services, Keene.