There Might Not Be a Reason

December 13, 2017 § 2 Comments


Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is the difference in levels of understanding of and sympathy for mental illness when it’s understood as the result of trauma (personal or historical) versus when there’s no real reason–or when the reason is simply physical or psychological variation we don’t fully understand yet, something captured well in the concept of neurodivergence.

In those latter cases, of which I am one—to quote Lady Gaga, I was born this way, hey—mental illness still carries the very deeply and unconsciously held stigma of being “a personal, moral failing that no amount of psychiatric care can alleviate,” as Angelica Jade Bastién writes of her own worst fears about her bipolar, “a dark mark that can’t be hidden or scrubbed away no matter how hard you try.”

This is literally the meaning of stigma—a socially-imposed, outer mark of internal or essential wrongness or badness or exclusion, a scarlet letter. Bastién’s words remind me of my childhood and adolescent sense that my neurodivergence was somehow visible for all to see, inscribed on my body or undeniably present in the weirdness of my habits or clothes or hair. Only recently have I realized that this experience was not simply social anxiety, but rather a nascent awareness of the real difference within me, and of the real social judgment placed on those who are different for no reason.

For instance: earlier this year, I had a conversation at work with a volunteer about her long career as a nurse. We were making chit chat, and I asked how she met her husband. She responded that he had once worked as a social worker, and that they met when they were both working at the same facility, which provided mental health treatment for youth.

“So many kids there, their stories were just terrible–they were there because they had been badly abused, and you felt so bad. But then with some of them, there was nothing wrong, nothing that had happened–like this one girl, she had schizophrenia, and she was just, you know…”

Here her voice drops down to a whisper, like it’s a dirty secret. “…crazy.” 

I don’t write this to criticize this woman, who I think is a good and kind-hearted person. If I had said something—which I didn’t, because I needed time to think about what she said and how I felt about it—she would have reflected on her words and assumptions and probably tried to change them, I think. So the point is not about calling out any particular individual.

The point is to bring attention to the reality that, in a moment when the move to destigmatize mental illness has gained popular traction, when it has become more okay to be out about having mental illness, we see at the same time an impulse to cleave those who experience it into deserving and undeserving groups—those who understandably and for legitimate reasons developed mental illness and those who are just, you know…crazy. 

The irony is that, in failing to recognize that not all mental illness is caused by trauma, that some mental illness is simply neurodivergence, we also fail to recognize how our attitudes about mental illness might create trauma for those who live with it. Trauma does not only cause mental illness; sometimes it is the effect of how we understand and respond to mental illness socially and politically.

We can easily recognize and sympathize with those who developed mental illness as a result of unequal distributions of power—as the outcome of abuse or oppression or injustice. It’s a much harder thing to challenge the ways we continue to internalize views of non-trauma-based mental illness as absolute otherness, as craziness—which also reflect unequal distributions of power.



§ 2 Responses to There Might Not Be a Reason

  • loopernow says:

    Maybe some care should be taken to distinguish between mental illnesses/disorders and simply a difference of mental functioning, such as between “introverts” and “extroverts,” et al.

    An “introvert” shouldn’t suffer any “mental distress” or “disability”, or be in any way mentally “dysfunctional” (as mental illness and mental disorders have been defined for being introverted, but, as you point out, an introvert certainly could suffer mental distress if stigmatized for being that way.

    • M. Cortez says:

      Yeah–this political difference (between disorder and difference) is what the neurodivergence paradigm, historically developed and led by people on the autism spectrum, is meant to capture. I’ve never seen introversion itself/alone lumped in with mental illness since it’s just a personality trait, but to the extent that introversion is stigmatized within US culture, it makes sense to conceptualize it in relation to neurodivergence.

      I didn’t really parse this out in the post, but I do think it is possible to understand mental illness as mere variation in human functioning while also acknowledging that at times these differences in perception or emotional functioning can create the distress and disability that gets understood as a disorder. I don’t think it’s one or the other–as a lived experience, I think mental illness is often both.

      This seems to be an internal debate within the movement to recognize and affirm neurodivergence, actually…the extent to which its perspective is limited to those who are “high functioning” (a term I actually kinda hate). I found the “criticism” section of this wiki entry very interesting

      in part because I have a lot of sympathy for the view that a strictly anti-medical perspective risks trivializing or insulting the suffering of those who live with various conditions.

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