Stigma and Mental Illness

By David Trend

“The more I became immersed in the study of stigmatized mental illness, the more it astonishing to me that any such phenomenon should exist at all,” writes Robert Lundin, a member of the Chicago Consortium for Stigma Research. “I believe that serious and persistent mental illnesses, like the one I live with, are clearly an inexorably no-fault phenomena that fully warrant being treated with the same gentleness and respect as multiple-sclerosis, testicular cancer or sickle-cell anemia.”[i] Here Lundin names a central of problem in the social construction of mental illness: the misunderstanding of conditions affecting the mind as somehow different from other biological illness. The misrecognition renders mental illness prone to the judgmental attributions discussed by Susan Sontag in her 1973 book Illness as Metaphor.  To Sontag, contemporary society reverses ancient views of sickness as a reflection of the inner self.  In this new view, the inner self is seen as actively causing sickness––through smoking, overeating, addictive behavior, and bad habits: “The romantic idea that disease expresses the character is invariably extended to exert that the character causes the disease–because it is not expressed itself. Passion moves inward, striking within the deepest cellular recesses.”[ii] But as before, the sick person is to blame for the illness.

Such sentiments are especially vindictive when a mentally ill person commits a crime. Understandably perhaps, clinical terms like “mental illness” quickly acquire malevolent meanings in the public mind––even though the mentally ill statistically are no more prone to criminality than anyone else. Sometimes this semiotic slippage causes public panic over commonplace disorders. Consider the case of Adam Lanza, the young man who in 2013 shot 26 children and adults at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Massachusetts. While mental health analysts speculate that an acute psychotic episode prompted his violence, Lanza never had been diagnosed with a serious mental illness. As reporters scrambled for a story, much was made of Lanza’s childhood symptoms of Asperger’s syndrome, a form of high-functioning autism. The repeated mention of this disorder in news coverage triggered wrong-headed fears nationally of the murderous potential in other autistic kids. According the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), approximately 1 in 50 people (1.5-million) fall somewhere on the autistic spectrum, 80 percent of whom are boys.[iii] This has prompted improved diagnostic measures, which in turn have resulted in an apparent rise in autism cases in recent years––up 78 percent from a decade ago––and made autism a source of acute anxiety for many new parents. Continue reading “Stigma and Mental Illness”

Belonging Where?

By David Trend:

Throughout its existence the United States has shown a strange tendency to turn against itself, dividing citizens against each other with a vehemence rivaling the most brutal regimes on earth. Some have rationalized the resulting crisis of “belonging” in America as an understandable consequence of cultural diversity, economic stress, and global threat. After all, haven’t there always been “insiders” and “outsiders” in every culture? Aren’t competition and aggression wired into human nature?  Or is there something peculiar about the personality of the U.S.?  Could it be that prejudice is the real legacy of the “American Exceptionalism,” in traditions dating to the genocide of indigenous populations, the subjugation of women, the rise of slavery, the scapegoating of immigrants, and more recent assaults on the poor or anyone falling outside the realm of normalcy?

I discussed selected aspects of America’s divisive pathology in my book A Culture Divided: America’s Struggle for Unity, which was written in the closing years of the George W. Bush presidency.  Like many at the time, I had completely given up on the idea of “common ground” amid the residue of post-9/11 reactionary fervor and emerging economic recession. Media commentators were buzzing constantly about red/blue state polarization.  Opinions varied about the cause of the divide, attributing it to factors including regionalism, media sensationalism, partisan antipathy, or all of these combined. Also joining the fray were those asserting the divide was fabricated, with evenly divided elections showing most people in the middle of the curve on most issues.  My somewhat contrarian view was that the “problem” shouldn’t be regarded problem at all. After all, America always had been divided––through war and peace, boom and bust. Division was the country’s national brand.  But as a book about politics, A Culture Divided didn’t get to the roots or the lived experience America’s compulsive divisiveness.

Speaking at the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches, President Barack Obama described America as an incomplete project––a nation caught between ideals of a perfect union and the lingering realities of their failure. While citing advances in civil liberties since the bloody apex of the Voting Rights Movement, Obama also spoke of a federal report issued just days earlier documenting structural racism and misbehavior toward African Americans by police in Ferguson, MO, where months before law enforcement officers had killed an unarmed black teenager. “We know the march is not yet over.  We know the race is not yet won,” the President stated, adding, “We know that reaching that blessed destination requires admitting as much, facing up to the truth.” Continue reading “Belonging Where?”