Tuesday, 18 December 2012

There is no depression in New Zealand

There's a lot of talk at the moment about mental illness, and particularly about assumptions made that really bad things (like mass shootings) are carried out by people with mental illnesses.  I was part of such a discussion today, and I paused a bit, then told the small group discussing it that I have a mental illness.

I explained, after an awkward silence, that I take medication every day for depression, because I seem to have a chemical imbalance in my brain*, much in the same way that I take medication every day for asthma, because I seem to have chronic inflammation in my bronchioles.  I see a counsellor once a month to help me with tools to build my mental fitness, in much the same way that others might go to a gym for their physical fitness. It was surprisingly hard for me to talk about.

I think it's natural to assume that people only do really bad things because they are not in their right mind at the time; a "psychotic break" perhaps.  And I'm sure sometimes that is the case.  But it does seem like often it's a convenient way to Other, to dehumanise, to put the perpetrators of bad deeds at a distance from ourselves, so that we don't really have to explain or understand why. 

Via a Facebook friend I happened to stumble across this interesting blog post today, which included the timely quote:
Instead of examining what made it possible for [Anders] Breivik to unleash his barrage of racial hatred (he was vehemently against immigration by racialized bodies and supposed ‘takeover’ of Norway through this immigration’), he is excused and deemed insane, being sent to psychiatric care instead of prison. The explanation for his violence – he had a psychotic  ‘break’, a break from his normal civility and a break from an ordered society that would never breed such violence.
Never mind his high levels of planning and execution, never mind that he was actively a part of White supremacist organizations with similar views – White society is civilized and non-violent, so he must have been crazy. Madness is used here as a way of explaining away violence within White bodies and White society. It is not the norm, it is a break from it. 
And then there is this response to the Sandy Hooks shootings, and the leap to assume a role for mental illness there too, You Are Not Adam Lanza's Mother, including this:
The reality is that there is no such observed link: “after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’” And most people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime.. [their emphasis]
I don't really know how to finish this post other than to say it has been a difficult day.


I've just edited this, a few minutes after publication, to take out the picture and reference to some of the work the Mental Health Foundation is doing because I don't want to confuse things by writing about them in the same post.  Hope that makes sense.

*  This is my experience of mental illness, and it won't necessarily reflect how others with mental illnesses see their own experience.


Timespanner said...

Very well put.

LudditeJourno said...

Beautiful Julie, thank you for sharing. I can think of no better example of how ridiculous is the Othering of anything deemed outside the sphere of "normal" when it comes to mental health. Respect, LJ

katy said...

Thank you for sharing that Julie. Being so honest both in the discussion and in this post is courageous.

It sounds like the discussion you had today was similar to the brief one I was party to yesterday with you. I thought about it quite a lot afterwards and decided what I would say if the issue came up again, which is similar to what has been written here. While we condemn them we can't deny that shootings such as the one in Newtown are human acts.

Grant said...

Reaching for the "mental illness" explanation when tragedies like these occur is an attempt explain away social pathology by locating the problem within the individual.

I think one of the most insightful commentators on this phenomenon today is the Australian psychiatrist Tad Tietze. He also wrote a number of very good piece on the Breivik case, including this one: http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/3579478.html

Julie said...

Thanks for the feedback here and elsewhere, much appreciated.

Carruthers said...

In the Breivik case, Breivik's "psychotic break" theory was just that, Breivik's own theory. It wasn't applied to him by a world eager to stigmatise the mentally ill as violent, it was Breivik's own explanation (through his lawyer) for his actions. Is it really so objectionable that the court decided to believe somebody's identification of themselves as mentally ill?

Anonymous said...

@Carruthers - Actually Anders Breivik repeatedly claimed(and still does) that he's sane. He completely rejected any attempt to prove otherwise and was happy with the final ruling of the court. He wanted his beliefs to be given legitimacy and he didn't want to be discredit by being deemed insane.


Anonymous said...

To clarify further - AB's argument is that the attacks were necessary due to the threat Islam posed to the world and therefore shouldn't be criminalised. He always admitted what he did, the criminality was being debated.


Anonymous said...

In regards to Breivik. Regardless of what he or anyone else says relating to his mental health, no sane person goes out and massacres 77 human beings.

I consider myself fairly sane and I know without a doubt that no matter what state I was in I simply would not be capable of doing such a thing. It is not a thing that any normal sane person could do.

He is quite clearly insane and needs to be locked away for the rest of his life in a secure mental facility where he can be studied in order to try and find out what switch in his mind or genes or DNA made him not only capable of thinking about doing what he did, but actually carrying it out.

K said...

@Anon You are confusing the legal/medical definition of insanity.

When I google "insanity definition" I get:

The state of being seriously mentally ill; madness.
Extreme foolishness or irrationality.

This is what you mean in your post.
When I add the term "legal" to the above serach string I get this:

insanity n. 1) mental illness of such a severe nature that a person cannot distinguish fantasy from reality, cannot conduct her/his affairs due to psychosis, or is subject to uncontrollable impulsive behavior

Quite different. AB doesn't appear to meet the legal definition as he was aware of his actions, had engaged in extensive planning so was not acting on (uncontrollable) impulse.

Anonymous said...

@Anon - "no sane person goes out and massacres 77 human beings"

You seem to make this claim on the grounds that no matter what state you were in you would never be able to do it. However, I can assure you that plenty of sane people carry out mass murders. People go into wars and kill other people. Governments deliberately execute and slaughter people all the time. Murdering other people is part of the human condition - it has been happening for the whole of human history.

And do you know what? If you genuinely believed that X group poses a threat to your own well-being and security then it's easy enough to justify killing them in terms of self-defence. Whilst AB clearly had some distorted cognitive processes, he definitely wasn't insane by any definition (legal or otherwise).

Mentally ill people (especially those unable to distinguish between right and wrong) simply cannot engage in such highly sophisticated levels of planning. Furthermore, madness isn't confined to one aspect of a person's behaviour. AB was completely normal in every other aspect of his personality.

Yes, it might make you feel safe or whatever to write him off as insane, but he definitely wasn't and I'm glad the courts found accordingly.

The other thing is that people with mental illness are infinitely more likely to be victims of violence or abuse than perpetrators of it.


Anonymous said...

Because wars dont exist? Nazism never happened? Inquisition was an illusion? Right, sane people dont kill...lets pretend that os true and take innocent people human rights for no reason ignoring that they are contantly victims and a vulnerable population.

Julie said...

Anon from yesterday, please note that you must use a handle. As your comment is not objectionable and this is one of my threads I'm leaving your comment, but please note future such ommissions may result in deletion.