Monday, May 23, 2016

What People Think About the Mentally Ill

[TRIGGER WARNING: ABLEISM, MENTAL ILLNESS STIGMA, DEATH]

You may have heard about the outrage surrounding an article published on xoJane about the personal feelings of a woman following the death of a former friend with fairly serious mental health issues. When I first started seeing Tumblr posts and response article titles about it, I though it was going to be a piece about a real friend of the deceased who, upon watching a loved one deteriorate for years, couldn't help but feel a sense of relief upon her passing. As horrible as that kind of feeling might seem, it is a feeling, and one I understand. I watched my grandmother deteriorate from dementia, and though that's not the same as untreated mental illness, I felt relief when she finally died. It's normal to feel a sense of relief, among other feelings when a person is freed of intense suffering.

That's not what this article was about.

The article, which has been removed and replaced with an inadequate apology, was called "My Former Friend's Death Was a Blessing." It's been archived, so you can still read it here and not give any traffic to xoJane.

The best word I have to describe this article is cold. The reasons the author has for cutting her friend off are petty and betray a callous lack of understanding and lack to attempt to understand mental illness. By the end, she no longer knows anything about this mentally ill person other than what she sees on her Facebook page. Yet she declares that this person never could have lived a happy or productive life.

She would have either been institutionalized or a major burden on her family. There was just no way she would have survived on her own. Drowning to death was relatively painless compared to what she had to endure in life.

That's cold.

I honestly don't know how this article slipped through xoJane's editors. I've used enough content management systems to know how difficult it is to accidentally post something before it's ready. And how easy it is to revert something back to a draft. There's even a pretty glaring typo in the article, and it's not very well organized. xoJane's short apology doesn't explain how this poorly edited mess ended up being published and left up for long enough to piss off a lot of people (I'm not sure how long but it seems like it had to have been days), only that they're going to work on their vetting process.

Plenty of counter articles have already explained all about what's fucked up in this piece. But what I want people to take away from it is an idea of how many, maybe most people think about the mentally ill. Especially when it comes to those with more severe illnesses than standard depression or anxiety.

The "former friend" of the author was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder. This is a high-tier mental illness that shares symptoms with schizophrenia and mood disorders like bipolar disorder. Common primary symptoms include hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thinking, depression, and mania. A mental illness like that is difficult for most people to imagine and sympathize with. Schizophrenia is particularly demonized, having been associated with violent behavior. It's often thought that people with this illness can't lead "normal" lives and need to be institutionalized. This is not true.

The author of this piece is a classic case of expecting neurodiverse people to act like neurotypical people. Because this mentally ill person didn't act as she expected, the author decided she was a burden, toxic, miserable, and better off dead. And yes, emotional support and medication are things that mentally ill people need access to and deserve access to. But the same is true for just about everyone. A lack of access to these basic needs does not mean that someone is better off dead.

The real failure here is the author's failure to attempt to understand mental illness. The author complains that her former friend "wasn't quite right," citing clothes on the floor and general mess in her living space as a failure to mature. If you did a little research into simple depression, you'd find that "messiness" is a classic symptom. It has nothing to do with a failure to "evolve" as a person. But even if this person stopped maturing psychologically at some point, this wouldn't have been her fault. No one chooses not to mature. When someone doesn't it's because they have some kind of illness, disability, or are told they don't need to or shouldn't (as is the case for many privileged white dudes).

No one is obligated to support or be friends with someone with a mental illness if they feel like they need to take care of themselves first and can't do that while being friends with a mentally ill person. There are plenty of healthy ways to be friends with an ill person and still prioritize and take care of yourself, but if you aren't strong enough to set the necessary boundaries, then by all means, do what you need to do.

What's not okay is to publicly post a piece of writing about mental illness when you clearly have no knowledge about that illness. It's not okay to promote that kind of ignorance and those kinds of harmful attitudes about mentally ill people. It's not okay to say that the untimely death of a mentally ill person that may have been a suicide was a blessing, for her or for you.

But this is how a lot of people who don't have a mental illness (or more likely don't know they have one) think about people will mental illnesses, especially the severe ones like schizoaffective disorder. They assume that they're beyond help and better off dead, yet at the same time they blame people like this "former friend" for what they view as personal failures like not keeping their rooms clean or quitting a job.

I can only assume this article was the result of guilt and defense mechanisms meant to push that guilt away. This author doesn't need to feel guilty for the death of a former friend she had almost no contact with at the time, but when people do feel guilt, it's very common for them to look for reasons that whatever happened wasn't their fault. The victim being so hopelessly fucked up and miserable that they're better off dead is a thorough reason not to feel guilty, gross as it may be.

This doesn't excuse the author for writing this mess, and xoJane has no excuse for publishing it. My advice to the author is to sit with her own psychological issues and educate herself thoroughly on mental illness before writing anything again, no matter what the topic. Only this will ensure you refrain from doing further harm. Maybe one day you can make amends for hurting mentally ill people and spreading toxic ideas about them.

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