Talking about mental illness


For centuries, scholars who study linguistics have debated the relationship between words and the meanings ascribed to them. While highly abstract, this work is important because it helps us understand the process of developing shared understandings.

For instance, the word, “chair,” immediately brings up a generally shared idea about an everyday item, even if our individual and particularized mental object is unique.

You read “chair” and can easily imagine what that might be. This process is subtle, but infinitely complex. It is necessary for life in society. It is the basis of all symbolic communication.

Shared meaning tells us which thing is a sheep and which is a goat. Because the world is so complex, our brains have developed collateral processes to sort out categories of things. Psychologist David Schneider calls this process the development of “diagnostic packages” which our brains use as “perceptual shorthand” (i.e. stereotyping).

We see a person… wearing those clothes, in that place, at that time, behaving that way… we weigh the matrix of available information against what we otherwise expect and form conclusions about the person we’re watching.

As the criminologist Egon Bittner observes: “New facts are added to the texture, not in terms of structured categories but in terms of adjoining known realities.”

Rightly or wrongly, this ability permits us to glance at another person and quickly conclude that they are; normal or not; like us or not; crazy or not…

This process is far from perfect. It is the well-spring from which racial profiling, bigotry and intolerance emanate. These snap judgments may be dead on target or wildly flawed. Many are made at such a subconscious level that we don’t even recognize we’ve done it. We see someone, press them into our web of known information and assign them to a place therein.

As above, this can be poisonous for race relations. While by no means resolved, this aspect of the process is pretty freely discussed. There is, however, a more insidious and largely unexamined population who bear a double burden because of our “overly-efficient” mental sorting: persons who have mental illness.

This phrase in itself says something about our regard for these people. We might encounter a person and say ‘he has a mental illness’ as opposed to ‘he is mentally ill.’ The distinction is important. The former turn of phrase implies that ‘he’ is a person who has a disease. The second implies that ‘he’ is the disease. The later makes it easier for us to discount and marginalize that person.

This is exactly what humans have done for thousands of years. For most of human history, people who had a mental illness were thought to be possessed, under the control of an evil spirit or suffering God’s wrath.

What’s most interesting is the fact that physicians between the Third and Fifth centuries BCE (first, the Greek Hippocrates and later, the Roman, Galen) reasoned that mental illness was caused by an imbalance in bodily humors — the four essential fluids of the human body.

Even through the Middles Ages, mental illness was believed to result from an imbalance of humors. While lacking the sophistication and specificity of modern medicine, this belief took mental illness out of the realm of the supernatural.

This advance did not last. With the rise of theocratic regimes in the Middle Ages, the theory of humors was set aside for more politically expedient causes. In short, casting mental illness as the work of the devil was simply too useful.

Sadly, we have approached a similar precipice today as we consider the root of our violence-prone culture. Mental illness has yet again become fodder for those who want to avoid more directly causal factors. Even though people with mental illness are much more likely to be the victims of violence than perpetrate it, the stigma we put on them makes them the perfect fall guy. Who better to blame than someone too repressed and afraid to fight back?