On the Concept of “Mental Illness,” the Harms of Psychiatric Labeling, and the Most Unrecognized, Oppressed Minority Group in America

by Jeanene Harlick | November 6, 2014 10:15 am


Over the past thirty years, we Americans have been industriously exporting our ideas about mental illness… [And] how a people in a culture think about mental illnesses—how they categorize and prioritize the symptoms, attempt to heal them, and set expectations for their course and outcome—influences the diseases themselves. In teaching the rest of the world to think like us, we have been, for better and worse, homogenizing the way the world goes mad… In the end, all mental illnesses, including such seemingly obvious categories such as depression, PTSD, and even schizophrenia, are every bit as shaped and influenced by cultural beliefs and expectations as hysterical leg paralysis, or the vapors, or zar, or any other mental illness ever experienced in the history of human madness.”

-ETHAN WATTERS, from Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche 

As some of you know, I was profiled last week, along with two other “inspiring creatives,” by MATTERNCO, where I wrote about how I want to help change the way society views and treats the “mentally ill.” One quote in particular spurred a rather heated response from a friend. What I said was:

I want to show that ‘mental illness’ has a lot more to do with a sick society than a sick mind… Just as there are different shades of skin color in our society, so there are different varieties of minds. This does not diminish the fact that some people… [are] in [intense] psychological pain, and can hurt themselves as they try to cope with their invisible battle. And that these people – including me – need help. But society also needs to not treat us as third-class citizens lacking the insight, intelligence, or capacity to still fully function and have a voice in society.” 

Responded my friend: 

I have to admit that I was shocked to read that you don’t believe that mental illness exists!  Do you not believe that PTSD or schizophrenia are illnesses? From my vantage point as a [Deputy] D.A. I have seen so many cases where people hurt or kill people in the most horrific ways because they felt compelled to do so by voices or paranoia– wouldn’t you say this is per se mental illness?

First, with all due respect to my friend, I’m not quite sure how he/she interpreted my words to imply I don’t believe some people in the world struggle with various forms of mental distress of a serious and uncontrollable nature. Particularly since I happen to be one of these people. What I was trying to state – maybe not as effectively as I thought – is that while there are some biological (hence uncontrollable) roots to “mental illness,” society is just as much a culprit. What most people don’t realize is that how we identify, label and talk about mental health throughout the world is significantly culturally scripted. As psychiatric anthropologist Juli McGruder (more on her to come) put it: “What we say about mental illness reveals what we value and what we fear.”And in America, in particular, what we say about mental illness often results in the stigmatization, dehumanization, and oppression of the “mentally ill.” The mentally ill are the last minority group it’s completely ok to discriminate against – and nobody even realizes it, much less acknowledges it.

As I made clear – or so I thought – by my constant use of quotes surrounding the term “mental illness,” is that my problem is with how we label and define – not the existence of – mental illness. In other words, it is a primary mission of my writing to change the way we talk – and therefore view – those unfortunate enough to be permanently branded as “mentally ill” in America. Particularly the 6 percent of us who experience chronic and severe “mental illness,” and therefore bear the primary burden of the prejudice associated with that label.

I find it particularly unsettling that my friend – who, please don’t get me wrong, is a very good, supportive and compassionate friend, has the best of intentions, and as a deputy D.A. has seen a lot of horror that I have not – immediately jumped on the “The-mentally-ill-are-more-prone-to-commit-extreme-violence” bandwagon. This is one of the most incorrect and damaging stereotypes my minority group is afflicted with today. In fact, people battling mental health issues are no more likely to be violent than anyone else, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (you can visit this fact sheet on mentalhealth.gov to see this stat, as well as the truth behind other common myths surrounding mental disorders). Only 3 – 5 percent of violent acts are associated with people with severe mental illness. Actually, it’s the opposite that is true – people with severe mental illness are more than ten times likely to be victims of violent crime – rather than commit them.

Whenever a violent act such as the recent school shootings in Seattle occur, the first thing you hear from the media is, “What was wrong with this kid? We need more mental health resources! What were the signs? What mental disorder did this kid have?” Everyone was befuddled, of course, by Seattle’s particular scenario – lo and behold, a perfectly “normal” kid, it appears, committed this act. Apart from the fact that this supports the statistic I just noted above, it also highlights what the media never asks but should be asking: maybe it was a toxic society and its impossible standards – not a defective brain – that tipped this boy over the edge. I’m not justifying what he did, of course. I’m just saying, why is it America where mass school shootings occur now, on almost a monthly basis – and not anywhere else?

And then my friend also had to bring up the “schizophrenia” argument. Well, that was a bad call. Because guess what? It turns out I happen to know a lot about just how “relative” the diagnosis and behaviors of those labeled “schizophrenic” is, and that how they fare over the long-term is also significantly influenced by culture throughout the world. 

The reason I know this is – unlike most people who have the platform upon which to frame the discourse about mental illness in America today – I’ve done A LOT of research on the labeling,

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