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”

Azusa students speak in support for Ackley

Students rallied Wednesday behind a theology professor who was asked to step down from his position after coming out as transgender to officials at a Christian university, reports NBC/Los Angeles

“When Azusa Pacific University Professor H. Adam Ackley, formerly Heather Ann Clements, formally asked the private school in Azusa to recognize his name and gender change, the university immediately asked him to leave his post.

“Ackley’s lawyer said the professor of 15 years did not violate any school policies.

“He’s the greatest professor I’ve ever taken, so by taking him out of the classroom, especially mid-semester, is doing the students a huge disservice and it’s a huge loss to the university,” said student Margaret van der Bie.

“Students said Ackley was still teaching at least for another week, and the university said it was in ongoing discussions with him on his employment.

“The school said it respects the students’ right to protest.

“It doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll all agree on the same thing, but we are very much committed to the care and compassion of our students,” said Kim Denu, an Azusa Pacific professor.

“Ackley, who was once the school’s chair of theology and philosophy, said he has received an “overwhelming amount of support” from students and colleagues, as well as on social media, since his story came to light.”

H. Adam Ackley

The story of ordained minister and Azusa Pacific University Professor H. Adam Ackley has received considerable public attention in recent days, ever since the university requested that Ackley leave his professorship. Today’s Huffington Post carries Ackley’s own account of the story:

“I am a transgender professor who has served full-time as, variously, a professor of theology, a professor of church history, a professor of ministry, department chair, and university diversity council co-chair at a Christian university for 15 years, most of which I spent in treatment with female hormones and psychiatric medications for gender dysphoria and related symptoms of mental illness. Recent changes in diagnosis and treatment of transgender persons, along with a lifetime of research on the theology and biblical understanding of gender, have helped me live as one who is clearly sane by ceasing to fight my transgender-masculine identity. However, this has caused what has become a very public conflict with my employer, one that is being mediated with outside help and cannot be addressed any further here.

“I’ve publicly commented on my personal chastity at this specific season of my life only to help clarify for this conflicted community that gender and sexual behavior are different, since that is not clear to all involved. However, it is equally important to me that I never even implicitly contribute to homophobia in this community. Therefore, I want to affirm clearly that I am not embarrassed to be a lover of men. Rather, I have been embarrassed by having my gender identity publicly confused with my private sexual conduct, and by the silence of those who could help clarify that misunderstanding. The only reason that this even embarrasses me is that my current private personal experience includes the breakup of a fraudulent marriage, with children involved, as an ordained minister and a person who chooses to live in faithful covenant with a particular faith tradition (Christianity). Therefore, for me personally, it is most appropriate in this season of my life to live and witness to my young adult students and my children a singleness of devotion to what is healing and nourishing in my present life: parenting, prayer, teaching, preaching, and personal recovery. Continue reading “H. Adam Ackley”

Azusa asks transgender theologian to leave

A California Christian college has asked a professor who was once its chair of theology and philosophy to leave Azusa Pacific University after he came out as transgender, reports RNS Religious News.

“Heather Clements taught theology at the school for 15 years, but this past year, he has begun referring to himself as H. Adam Ackley.

“Ackley, who is in his third year of a five-year contract, told RNS that he and APU have agreed to part ways as the university said it will continue to pay him through the academic year. But, he said, the university wants other professors to take over his classes. He also said that his insurance was denied when he sought hormone treatment and “top surgery” for his chest area.

“They’re giving me privacy to transition but denying medical treatment to do that,” said Ackley who is 47 years old.

“APU spokesperson Rachel White declined to discuss Ackley’s employment, saying that the issue is ongoing and personnel matters are confidential. Ackley said he is meeting with a university lawyer on Monday.

“Azusa Pacific University is an evangelical university of about 10,000 students and 1,200 faculty located northeast of Los Angeles. To his knowledge, Ackley said there is nothing in theuniversity’s policies about transgender people, just that “Humans were created as gendered beings.”

“I did not get a sense directly from the individuals with whom I was speaking that they had a theological problem with transgender identity,” Ackley said. “I did get the message that it has to do with their concern that other people, such as donors, parents and churches connected to the university will have problems not understanding transgender identity.” Ackley said that he accepted his transgender identity this year after the American Psychiatric Association removed “gender identity disorder” from the list of mental illnesses in its manual. Continue reading “Azusa asks transgender theologian to leave”

Adam Lanza’s body quietly claimed

imagesParents of children who commit crimes receive little support and are typically scorned or otherwised blame for the actions of their offspring.

This simple and tragic reality is discussed at length by Andrew Solomon in his book Far From the Tree in relation to the family of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold.  Stunned by the actions of their son and his death, the Klebolds saw no memorials and received no sympathy, and instead were subjected to a decade of abuse and torment – which continues to this day.  Today the LA Times reported a similar story beginning to unfold for the family of the young man who committed the Sandy Hook murders”

“The body of Newtown, Conn., shooter Adam Lanza was claimed by his father last week, a family spokesman said Monday. Continue reading “Adam Lanza’s body quietly claimed”

Looking beyond game violence

Until cooler heads prevail, for the time being we will be living through a war-of-positions on game violence. Despite the absence of empirical evidence linking media violence and real world “effects,” a moral panic atmosphere is rising throughout the U.S. But as this recent essay by Steve Benen points out, nationsimgres-1 where people play plenty of violent video games don’t seem to share America’s predilection for mass shootings. Reproduced below is an except from Benen’s article as it appeared on maddowblog.

“Plenty of officials, including folks like Joe Lieberman, have been arguing for years that violent games desensitizes young people to violence and contributes to a larger corrosive effect on the culture.

“There’s just no evidence to support the claims. Hunches and cultural criticisms notwithstanding, there is no science to bolster the contention that gaming and gun violence are connected. (Adam Lanza was reportedly obsessed with “Dance Dance Revolution” — which is a game, as the name suggests, about moving feet, not shooting weapons.) Continue reading “Looking beyond game violence”

Autism is not linked to violence

“Among the details to emerge in the aftermath of the Connecticut elementary school massacre was the possibility that the gunman had some form of autism,” reports todays Los Angeles Times

“Adam Lanza, 20, had a personality disorder or autism, his brother reportedly told police. Former classmates described him as socially awkward, friendless and painfully shy.

“While those are all traits of autism, a propensity for premeditated violence is not. Several experts said that at most, autism would have played a tangential role in the mass shooting — if Lanza had it at all. ’Many significant psychiatric disorders involve social isolation,’ said Catherine Lord, director of the Center for Autism and the Developing Brain at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Autism, she said, has become a catch-all term to describe anybody who is awkward. Some type of schizophrenia, delusional disorder or psychotic break would more clearly fit the crime, experts said. Continue reading “Autism is not linked to violence”

“I am” Adam Lanza’s mother

The essay below was written by Lisa Long, not the actual mother of Adam Lanza, but a woman whose son has some of diagnoses attributed to the young man who committed the recent murders at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. The essay is about the complexities of living with and caring about a child whose behavior makes parental love a challenge.

“Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.

“‘I can wear these pants,”’ he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.

“‘They are navy blue,’ I told him. ‘Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.’ Continue reading ““I am” Adam Lanza’s mother”