I wrote the following essay as a response to recent media coverage and interpersonal discourse around the string of mass shootings that took place over the summer. There has been an overwhelming lack of perspective from neurovariant people’s and people with psychiatric disabilities’ viewpoints, and I hope to address some of the issues I see personally and to bridge that gap at least a little.
a fine line charting a complex maze: the language around “mental illness”
The language we use everyday carries with it a certain weight and meaning. Words have impact, and determine how we think about and relate to the ways in which we experience the world, and influences how others do too. As such, it is necessary to be aware of the words we are using and how we use them, and what we are implying when we speak. The impact of discourse around mental illness has deep and painful effects on those of us affected by such issues, most of which go unseen or ignored by the rest of society. I have been hearing a lot about mental illness as of late, often as a catch-all for any form of non-normative modes of thinking or behavior. It is an extremely loaded term, one which attempts to define a significant section of the population. I’d like to clarify the nuances in the discourse surrounding mental illness and introduce a more specific vocabulary that I personally use to describe my own experiences with respect to both myself and society.
First, I’ll introduce two terms: neurovariance (n., also: neurovariant (adj.)) and psychiatric disability (n., also: mental disability). Neurovariance describes a difference in psychological, mental, and/or neurological experiences from social norms, in particular how one processes language, information, emotions, and social interactions. Psychiatric disability is a term I use to describe my relation to society’s inaccessibility towards those of us who don’t fit psychological norms. The world does not respect or take into account our experiences, so much of the world is inaccessible to us, therefore causing us to be disabled (v.). To expand on these definitions, there are two more terms I use: neurotypical (adj.) and neuronormativity (n.). Neurotypical exists in opposition to neurovariant, referring to someone who does fit the social norms of mental function and experience. These social norms are described by the term neuronormativity. Most people are neurotypical, and neuronormativity is what makes neurotypical seen as “normal”, so to speak.
Mental illness is a particular form of neurovariance or other psychological/mental/neurological experience that is experienced or perceived as painful, harmful, unhealthy or unwanted by the person who is experiencing it themselves. It cannot, by definition, be described/ascribed by an outside observer without the direct input of the individual being referred to.
So, to give an example, I consider my adhd to be a neurovariance and a psychiatric disability, but not a mental illness. If society were accessible, my adhd would not cause me any harm. It would just be a difference in how my mind works. I consider my ptsd however to be a neurovariance, psychiatric disability and mental illness. If society were accessible, it would cause me less harm and I wouldn’t be disabled (still a verb), but I would still be hurting and struggling with the damage that comes with ptsd.
the act of scapegoating “crazy.”
When I refer to scapegoating “crazy”, I am talking about a few things in particular that people have been doing when discussing the recent shootings, particularly in the media but also conversationally. Primarily, I am speaking of how “untreated mental illness” is being named as a cause or explanation for these incidents. In doing so, people are demonizing and othering neurovariant people and people with psychiatric disabilities (nv/pwpd), and in some cases pitying us at the same time. For example, in a recent article on the Aurora shooting, a mugshot is shown with the caption, “How do we prevent men like James Holmes from striking again?” Another article reads, “When he walked into court Monday morning, one thing was immediately obvious. Something was wrong with this guy. Which was weirder, the dazed expression he wore most of the 11 minutes of the hearing, or the sudden bursts of wild eyes, matching his ridiculous orange hair?”
Many have been offering “solutions” for this problem, usually by claiming that psychiatric institutions and the medical-industrial complex need to be reformed (i.e., given more funding, strengthened, etc.) in order to better “fix” or “treat” nv/pwpd. All of this has been said without any inclusion of any nv/pwpd perspectives.
There are a couple of notable assumptions about nv/pwpd underlying the vast majority of reporting and discussion of these incidents that I want to unpack. The first assumption is that nv/pwpd necessarily have less control (or none at all) over our actions than “sane”, or neurotypical, people. This is the rationale behind the belief that someone picked up a gun and shot a room full of people because they are “just crazy”. There are certain social conditions by which we are all bound, that affect all of our behaviors and actions. A “sane” person has no more agency in their own actions than an “insane” person. During times of crisis, our needs may be different, we may act in ways beyond our own control, but that is precisely where inaccessibility impacts us most. Our agency is taken from us by a lack of support, not by our madness. Neurotypical people also have similar times where they lose control of their own actions, but neuronormative society accounts for these, not for the different ways in which neurovariant people experience a loss of control.
The second assumption is that psychiatry can accurately determine “mental illness” objectively, without regard to how one perceives their own experience. It is a belief in the illegitimate authority of psychiatry and the medical-industrial complex. It puts undeserved faith in an individual psychiatrist, and continues to remove agency from nv/pwpd. Who is labelled as “mentally ill” and who isn’t has far more to do with who decides to or is forced into seeing a psychologist or therapist than it does the actual mental state or the perspectives of the person in question. The broad umbrella of “mental illness”, as applied by the medical-industrial complex, is such that any behaviors can be pathologized into illness. It’s not only good business, but psychiatrists are trained to find mental illness. They are actively looking for a diagnosis. It’s only natural that they would seek to find a diagnosis for everyone in their care. So much of psychiatry is subjective, that unlike other areas of medicine there are far fewer reliable standards by which to make a diagnosis in the vast majority of cases. It’s left open to the interpretation of the individual psychiatrist, without the consent or voice of whoever they are diagnosing.
a profoundly sick society: learning violence, social isolation, and the commodification of personal relationships.
Within a sick, violent society, all people are taught violence. We are told to look at those who commit violence as role models, so long as that violence takes place within certain relationships where violence is culturally sanctioned. Violence is socially acceptable when authorized by a legitimized authority, and considered unacceptable when performed outside of an authority’s approval. To give an example, a police officer shooting an unarmed person of color is often overlooked, and when it is brought up, excuses are made, and the blame is placed on the victim. Yet, when a person of color defends themselves against police violence and injures a cop in the process, it is viewed as a heinous, irredeemable act of violence. Violence is socially acceptable when performed in service of dominant social ideologies, and unacceptable when it disrupts or subverts dominant social ideologies. A straight, cis man can kill a trans sex worker and get away with it, often being able to use her trans status as a justification, but when a black trans woman defends herself against a racist, transphobic attacker, she is charged with murder and sentenced to 3 years in prison.
These boundaries are artificial, in that they are crafted by social institutions and not the result of some natural law or inherent qualities of human behavior. Society enforces and maintains the boundaries of these social norms through both positive and negative conditioning. The passive normalization of behaviors through depictions in the media, in television and movies, etc., is performed while erasing non-normative behaviors from dominant narratives. These things then allow for justifying social and legal punishment of non-normative behaviors through a wide variety of methods including alienation and ostracization among personal and professional relationships, degradation, harassment, assault, criminalization, incarceration, coerced medication, institutionalization and involuntary hospitalization, to name a few.
The severe, piercing social isolation brought about by capitalism and our commodification of personal relationships and interactions allows for easily dehumanizing and othering people to justify one’s own violent or harmful acts. As our relationships are commodified, they are removed from their emotional contexts and assessed by some measured value, interacted with as a zero-sum game. Each interaction becomes marked as a “win” or a “loss”, defined by personal interests and desires. Furthermore, there is no collective social accountability, but rather appeals to a loaded structure defined by the interests of dominant social norms and institutions. Without a support network or any meaningful connection to the people around us, the capacity to carry out such acts of violence becomes much more accessible to everyone — neurotypical people and nv/pwpd alike.
The profound sickness of our society creates the conditions for these shootings to occur. It is not the sickness of the individual that causes one to mass murder, but the society in which we live. White supremacy, nationalism, and islamophobia enables and encourages shootings like in Oak Creek. Our infatuation with violence and lack of community support enables and encourages “senseless” mass murders like in Aurora.
the rupture of deliberate, skilled repression from the context of neuronormativity: neurovariant accessibility & performance.
Conforming to socially acceptable behaviors requires a deliberate act of repression which must be learned. Everyone, to some extent, differentiates between what behaviors they seek to carry out, and which they actively avoid. This act of repression necessary in conforming to behavioral norms is based on neuronormativity, in that it is centered around neurotypical modes of social interaction and information processing. Performing repression successfully, meaning being able to behave in socially acceptable ways, is something most neurotypical people take for granted. It is easy for them, because what is considered socially acceptable is based on how neurotypical people behave. For nv/pwpd, there are complications. We are forced into figuring out how to behave like neurotypical people. We have to deliberately try to pass as neurotypical or “sane”. Failing to do this successfully is punished through alienation, assault, incarceration, forced medication, etc. Being able to pass as neurotypical is a privilege. It is easier for some than others, and not everyone is physically capable of passing as neurotypical.
These outbursts of violence serve to rupture the illusion of normal behavior, and are evidence of deeper social issues that lie beneath the surface. All people learn behaviors, neurotypical people and nv/pwpd alike. The shooters in question have been taught to be violent, as we all are. Something like 10% of homicides are attributed to “mental illness”, yet anytime these shootings occur we always hear speculation on the mental health of the shooter, regardless of the situation, while nothing is said about the violence inherent in our society, the violence that is seen, perpetuated, and enabled every day. The label of “mental health” serves to distance the act from the very real implications it has for our society, and to reassure neurotypical people that they themselves are not just as capable of committing such an act — even when all evidence points to the contrary.
avoiding the trap of reformism: why more medical care won’t fix the problem, and how it can actually harm nv/pwpd.
There has been much discussion about “mental health reform” lately, however, I find the proposed ideas not only scarce, but deeply problematic as well. Reform of psychiatric institutions of the medical-industrial complex is necessary, and can be done in ways that benefit the lives of nv/pwpd. That said, we must be extremely careful in our calls for “mental health reform”. Psychiatric institutions and the medical-industrial complex are responsible for a lot of the violence and oppression against nv/pwpd, and simply strengthening them will only serve to strengthen their control over our lives. It is of vital importance to include nv/pwpd in any conversation of reforming psychiatric institutions and the medical-industrial complex, and at present I personally have seen no representation of us or our needs anywhere in this discussion.
We must recognize that the problems with mental health care are not the cause of these acts of violence. Reform of mental health care can alleviate the suffering of many nv/pwpd, but it will not prevent such shootings and mass murders. The issue at its core, is a problem of society. Forcing oppressive, unnecessary, or undesired care onto some will not prevent violence, especially when our society encourages violence at every turn. Below, I have listed some examples of reforms I feel are helpful, and which I see as harmful.
necessary & beneficial reforms:
- expanding (social, economic, geographical, etc.) access to care
- recognition of nv/pwpd’s agency in their own treatment/care
- strengthening patients’ rights and self-determination of treatment
- limiting involuntary hospitalization/institutionalization
- accurate and openly accessible information on all treatments
harmful & oppressive reforms:
- expanding authority of psychiatry & the MIC
- increased regulation & control over nv/pwpd’s lives
- legitimizing forced/coerced medication, hospitalization & institutionalization
- forcing care onto people who break behavioral norms
- framing nv/pwpd as “sick” or somehow needing “treatment/fixing”
the consequences of using “mental illness” as a scapegoat.
This is not just a matter of being “politically correct” or not using offensive language. There is a deeper problem at work behind these shootings that desperately needs our attention. By scapegoating these issues, the bigger problems are being ignored. We need to let these tragedies serve as a sobering reminder of just how ill our society really is. We need to confront the violence that exists all around us. We need to confront white supremacy, colonialism, nationalism, and islamophobia. We need to learn how to support each other without perpetuating other forms of social oppression and violence.
Blaming “mental illness” further reinforces neuronormative hegemonies and mentalism. It supports and encourages a false belief that nv/pwpd are dangerous, immoral, or evil. It removes our agency as people, defining our actions as inevitable products of our minds while simultaneously dehumanizing us. It labels us as problems that need “fixing” through coercion, primarily through medication, incarceration, institutionalization/hospitalization, and denial of access to broader society. It frames psychiatric institutions and the medical-industrial complex as being legitimate authorities over our lives as nv/pwpd.
Additionally, this kind of scapegoating can only lead to punishing people for non-normative behaviors and increasing pathologization of “acting weird”. Fears over missing “early warning signs” can cause harm by feeding people into the medical-industrial or prison-industrial complexes unnecessarily and against their will. For example, we can turn to the ways in which mass hysteria over adhd has led to rampant overdiagnosis and unnecessary and dangerous medication of children.
I have seen on multiple occasions throughout my life, discussions around notebook entries and journals of mass shooters, all of which describe pretty closely my own adolescent diaries and artistic expression. I was terrified that I would be pulled aside and institutionalized or arrested simply for needing an outlet to express a lot of incredibly difficult, painful experiences. I had nobody to go to for fear of being reported, and so I kept it all to myself. It nearly killed me; I attempted suicide at the age of 15, feeling desperate, trapped, and hopeless. I was lucky enough to survive, but not everyone is, and there are many others out there who feel similarly. We need to start caring for each other, and not let media hype and paranoia drive us to perpetuate the same culture of violence and isolation which create the conditions for these mass shootings to occur.
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UPDATE: There are two articles I feel are extremely relevant to this conversation that I have recently come across. The first is a response to a recent article published from a mother of a “troubled child”, and the second is an analysis of the role of scapegoating “mental illness” in the context of whiteness when racism, islamophobia, or blaming political beliefs are not directly viable excuses.
“You Are Not Adam Lanza’s Mother”: http://thegirlwhowasthursday.wordpress.com/2012/12/16/you-are-not-adam-lanzas-mother/
“Whiteness, Madness, Violence and Incarceration: The Case of Anders Breivik”: http://ericswanderings.wordpress.com/2011/11/29/whiteness-madness-violence-and-incarceration-the-case-of-anders-breivik/
1. I would like to acknowledge and thank my good friend Sadie (thedistantpanic.wordpress.com) for this particular language around neurovariance and psychiatric disability. A lot of the language used here has been the result of many long, inspiring and insightful conversations between us, which I am extremely grateful for.
2. Bazelon, E. (August 10, 2012). How Do We Stop the Next Aurora? In Slate. Retrieved September 4, 2012, from http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/crime/2012/08/aurora_shooting_how_to_prevent_men_like_james_holmes_from_striking_again.html
3. Cullen, D. (July 29, 2012). What Does a Killer Think? In The Daily Beast. Retrieved September 4, 2012, from http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2012/07/29/aurora-shooting-what-does-a-killer-think.html
4. This is not to say psychology is false, or that psychiatry has no utility, but rather to acknowledge that psychiatry is a very imperfect institution that is driven by its ties to capitalist interests, the medical-industrial complex, and neuronormative hegemonies.
5. Not to say other areas of medicine don’t have their fair share of issues, including their own shoddy/unreliable methods of diagnosis, but psychiatry is particularly worse.
6. I am referring here to the case of CeCe McDonald. For more information: http://supportcece.wordpress.com/