Racism Is NOT A Mental Illness and It’s Damaging To Say It Is

 

Fuck this this is shit in all the ways it is shit.

Ok, now that I’ve got that out of my system I still make no promises that I will not continue to call it shit over and over again. Because this is a steaming pile of garbage filth feces, and I am not about to censor myself on the way that mental illness gets thrown under the bus time and again to make other people feel good, safe, and normal. The lives of the mentally ill are always seen as less than, wrong, and bad. This kind of bullshit is why even liberals are willing to discriminate against disabled and mentally ill people. I apologize in advance if this is ranty and angry but it has every right to be because this video is senseless drivel, but it’s exactly the kind of senseless drivel that I see coming out of the mouths of people I expect better of.

DEFINITIONS

Let’s start with facts. The video posits that racism is a PTSD like mental health problem because racists exhibit irritability, aggression, and hostility. Let’s talk about what it takes for something to be a diagnosis in the DSM, and why we have diagnoses. First and foremost we have diagnoses so that people can receive treatment. A diagnosis is supposed to help providers understand how they can help someone. Now right off the bat, this video’s suggestion that racism is a mental health problem or that we should treat it as a mental health problem makes very little sense because hey guess what it turns out a. almost everyone has some racist tendencies and b. racists respond to different types of treatment. Some people just need to meet a black person they like, some people need to confront their own traumas and history, some people appear not to be open to any kind of change. There’s no one reason that people are racist or a best practice for interacting with them. These traits vary wildly among racists, and there doesn’t seem to be a higher rate or intensity of them in racists than in the general population (or even associated with instances of racism. People can be racist with a smile on their faces while thinking they’re being kind). So strike one on why we should approach it like a mental health issue.

“Irritability, aggression, hostility,” those are not enough to make up a mental health diagnosis, and NOT EVERY RACIST shows those traits. They would have to be exaggerated beyond all the rest of the population, impact a person’s day to day functioning, and be unique to racists in some way in order to quality as a mental health diagnosis

The other major problem with suggesting that racism is a mental health issue is that in order to be considered a diagnosis, the symptoms have to impair functioning in some major area of life (work, relationships, education, etc.). Now there are some extreme cases in which this happens, but overall racists are pretty functional in our society. In fact, it turns out that you can be openly, disgustingly racist and still get elected president. Our society is one embedded in racism, so the idea that being racist or doing racist things or having racist thoughts will make it hard for you to function is laughable. This is what we’ve been taught all our lives. It only makes sense. In my experience, actively fighting racism is far less functional in our society than accepting the basic racist premises that we grow up with.

There are some other smaller problems, like the fact that not all racist people show irritability, aggression, or hostility (have you seen a sweet racist Minnesotan mom? I have), so if those are supposedly the defining characteristics of “racism”, why aren’t they associated with all instances of racism?

WHY DO PEOPLE DO IT

So factually it doesn’t make tons of sense to assert that racism is a mental health issue because the traits are not out of line with the rest of the population, seen in all racist instances, and don’t impair day to day functioning. What could be motivating this impulse that so many (mostly white) people have to say that racism is a mental illness? What are the larger impacts of this assertion?

The video seems to assert that this label helps us address racism better, because we can use “exposure therapy” a la the therapy for phobias. I personally think it’s a REALLY BAD IDEA to suggest that. First, there’s already a lot of gross misunderstandings about how therapy works, and how exposure therapy in particular works, to the extent that random people will just expose someone to their triggers and call it therapy. Saying that on a society wide level we can engage in exposure therapy by protesting and talking about our past traumas propagates these misunderstandings and suggests that any rando can do therapy. Additionally I don’t see why we need to label racism a mental health problem in order to be willing to talk about it openly and face it head on. We can do that anyway.

The video also seems to suggest that viewing racism as a mental health problem will push people to be more accountable. It says “don’t let your racist friend or uncle off the hook. You wouldn’t abandon them if they had a mental illness.” Now I have to laugh at this because mentally ill people get abandoned all the fucking time so that’s a fucking shitty appeal to people’s decency. But this also implies that people are racist through no fault of their own and we should address racism to help the poor innocent racists. WHAT. THE. FUCK.

STOP CENTERING WHITE PEOPLE DEAR LORD JESUS. The reason not to let racists off the hook is because they are actively hurting people of color. If that’s not a good enough reason for you, then you might be a racist. That’s it. We don’t need to save racists, they’re doing perfectly fucking fine. The more we cater to their fee fees, the worse off we’ll be.

Racism doesn’t HAPPEN to white people. White people CAUSE racism because it benefits us. The end.

SPLASH DAMAGE

Ok ok, so beyond being wrong, what’s so bad about saying that racism is a mental illness? Maybe it can help us understand the phenomenon better or give us ways to approach and change the problem, even if it’s not wholly accurate.

Well in addition to not actually being super helpful, calling racism a mental health problem is seriously hurting a whole lot of people. You know, those people who are ACTUALLY mentally ill. If you label things you disagree with or find offensive “crazy” or “mental illness”, you are part of the stigmatization of mental illness. You’re part of ableism.

Cruelty and dehumanization are not the same as mental illness. People with every diagnosis out there are capable of fighting racism and being good people. When you say that something you find immoral is a mental illness, you are implying that mental illness means violence, means treating people poorly, mean violence, means anger, means hostility. Sure, there are people who are mentally ill who do all these things, but this is the kind of rhetoric that suggests every school shooter has autism or every murderer was just crazy. It takes away people’s responsibility (the video gets it completely wrong on that front. Racism is not a behavior like drunk driving, it’s a belief system and it’s one for which you are responsible), while also opening up the door to mistreat mentally ill people because they are violent and dangerous.

Stop blaming bad actions on mental illness. I don’t appreciate being thrown under the bus so that you can feel like you understand your shitty friends better. It’s complete shit to equate these learned, chosen behaviors with the different way my brain was born.

tldr: it’s not crazy to be racist in our society. It’s not a fluke that so many people in positions of power are racist, it’s part of the system. Calling it crazy only hurts the mentally ill. STOP IT.

 

2017 Was a Year of Mourning

It’s the new year! Hey 2017. Good to see you.

I have a lot of friends who are not fans of 2016. I agree with them on many fronts about the dumpster fire of the last year. 2016 was objectively one of the hardest years I have ever had on a personal level. There was simply too much happening. Some of it was amazing, but some of it was truly horrible, and I cannot really process it all. For some people, 2016 was awful because of the election and celebrity deaths and large, communal events, things that didn’t appear to affect them personally but which they’ve reacted to anyway. Let’s talk about that. Let’s talk about what it’s like to have group experience that affect your perception of the world and the people around you.

I have seen some people shitting all over the idea that someone should be sad at the deaths of celebrities or at the election of Trump. These things don’t make an immediate impact. Other celebrities will die. Trump isn’t even president yet. 2017 will be worse. Just wait until their policies get enacted. Don’t complain, act! That’s not the RIGHT way to react to horrible things. 

I am not inclined to be particularly forgiving to anyone telling another person how to feel, but in this case, I think that naysayers have missed a major part of WHY others are reacting in the ways that they are and so I am particularly annoyed. One of the most common refrains that I’ve heard amounts to “get over it. It will just get worse so you need to toughen up and figure out how to deal with it.”

I have news for those naysayers: this communal outcry? The complaining, the jokes, the GIFs of a dumpster fire? That IS us getting used to it. It’s called grief and it’s a process, and 2016 was a year that was all about realizing that loss and cruelty are a part of our lives, then grieving for the reality we thought we knew. Grief happens in all kinds of ways. It’s not always rational, it’s not always clear, but it is necessary emotional work, and it will take time. People have to feel these emotions before they can move on to creating positive change.

I particularly want to focus on a brand of criticism that I’ve found frustrating and harmful. After Trump’s election a lot of people had a lot of feelings. Many people acted on those feelings in ways that made themselves feel more safe, or because they wanted to feel sure they would have birth control/be married/be able to get citizenship/whatever else they were worried about before Trump could make any changes. I have friends who moved up their wedding dates, people who invested in long term birth control, acquaintances who suddenly started volunteering and giving money at high levels. People are making changes. To some, this might appear rash. Trump isn’t going to take away marriage equality tomorrow, why are you having your wedding right now?

It’s true that in the sense of practical action, some of people’s behaviors aren’t necessary. People probably don’t need to worry about their healthcare disappearing the moment Trump gets sworn in, or about their marriages being annulled in a few weeks. Some of these behaviors might even be a little bit irrational in the strictest sense. I don’t really want to get in to a discussion of “how scared should people be”, because honestly it doesn’t even matter. These actions are serving a very important purpose that is completely separate from their existence as political actions.

People are doing things because they are sad and afraid. A world that they thought had existed is gone. They are mourning the loss of that world and the illusion of safety it had provided. Sometimes, when you are mourning, it is perfectly reasonable to do things just to make yourself feel better. You get to act irrationally, especially if it’s not hurting anyone and it makes you feel safer. You get to focus on yourself for a little bit.

When you understand people’s behaviors not necessarily as calculated political action but rather as personal grief, it makes a lot more sense, and hopefully can give us all a lot more patience with each other. Maybe things will stay as awful in 2017 as they felt in 2016. That’s certainly a possibility. But what I doubt will stay the same is the way people are behaving. Human beings require time to adjust to change, particularly unpleasant and difficult changes. 2016 was a year of realization for many people: the world is not what I thought it was. People are not who I thought they were. Death is a regular part of my life. Suffering cannot always be avoided.

2016 was a year of mourning those realizations and the loss of some hope and security that came from not believing those things. As we move into 2017, I hope we can start to grow from mourning to action. But I also want to recognize the people who are still coping, or still struggling to cope. Emotions move at their own pace. People feel and understand emotions differently from each other. None of us should be heaping shame and guilt on each other for the feelings we have about 2016.

I want to publicly witness your mourning. I want you to know that it’s ok. I want you to know that the fear and grief make sense. I want you to know that you aren’t alone. I want to recognize that there are moments in which communities collectively see and understand change, and that this isn’t just the same as usual, and maybe this is our new normal, but we take time to adjust to normal. It’s ok to feel like 2016 was a big and important year. Recognize those feelings. It’s the only way to move forward, and the only way to truly adjust to the world as it is. There’s no call for shaming each other.

What To Do When Your Jerkbrain Might Be Right

Right now the world is doing a number of pretty shitty things for people who are minorities or oppressed. Brexit is a clusterfuck. Donald Trump may actually get elected. The Orlando shooting. The murder of Youtuber Christina Grimmie. The assassination of British MP Jo Cox. Continued police shootings of black men. Conversations about mental illness and gun control and race and cops and xenophobia and fear fear fear. It’s everywhere. The world right now keeps reminding us that it’s a scary place, and many people are feeling overwhelmed and depressed and hopeless.

I’ve seen in particular in my circles that people who already struggle with depression or anxiety are floundering. Our brains tell us that we should panic or we should give up. Normally we would use skills to remind ourselves that the world isn’t awful and things aren’t falling apart. Most of those skills involve looking at whether things are actually as awful as they seem. And sadly, right now…things might be as awful as they seem. My friend Greta Christina inspired this post by saying “TFW your depressed jerkbrain is telling you that the world is terrible and frightening, and you feel like this time it might be right.”

In the meantime, I’ve gotten engaged, adopted two gloriously hilarious kittens, and generally had one of the best months of my life. This puts me in the weird position of having excess joy to share with others, of being the one who has the energy to help remind people that we will get through this. I never thought I would be the one bringing optimism to the party, but I suppose when you’re handed a lot of awesome while others are getting a shit sandwich the least you can do is invite them to your table.

So I’ve been asking myself: is there anything that I can offer others right now? Is there any smidgen of happiness I can pass on to the people who are seeing very real pain and suffering, and wondering how they can survive in a world that doesn’t seem to want them?

My happy things in no way make any of the bad things that have happened recently better. Not even for me. The day after I got engaged I woke up to news of the Pulse shooting, and simultaneously was giddy with excitement at my own future and sick at what I was hearing. Nothing can insulate you from the shock and pain of death and cruelty.

But similarly, I still get to feel happy. I am still capable of feeling happy. The things that make me happy cannot be touched by guns or racism or even Donald Trump’s orange face. Here are some happy things.

Yesterday I asked my fiance (FIANCE) how we should ask our friend to be the officiant at our wedding and he replied “yes”.

This morning I was awoken by two very wiggly and very soft kittens throwing themselves all over me.

I have a shiny, rainbow ring that I get to wear every day.

I’m head over heels in love and I just asked someone if they want to permanently entwine their life with mine and they said yes. Not only that, but dozens of my friends jumped at the chance to help me propose, to dress up in silly costumes and play a ridiculous card game just to make my day great.

These are all small facts. They don’t fight gun violence. They don’t save lives. But they are why we care about life. They’re why we’re sad when people’s lives are lost. Remember that the reason you’re sad is because you think there’s something worth fighting for.

Objectively, things suck, but objectively, there are things that make me smile in my life. Those two facts exist at the same time, and both of them have to have a place in your understanding of the world. If you want some reminders of what might make you smile here are some things to think about:

Are there people in your life that you love? Think about them for a minute. Not just their name or their relationship to you, but the way they smile, or their particular brand of humor, or how they get gentle around kids, or how they ask to make you dinner when you’re sick. It’s easy to say that people are awful and cruel. In my experience, people are loving, delicious, complex, confusing beings that pour out light when you ask what fuels them. It only takes a few that give off the right shade of light to make your skin tingle and your eyes crinkle. We are capable of feeling love. I don’t really know what the fuck love is, but it’s a pretty heady drug and I find it really cool that we get to feel it, and accept it.

You get to make choices about your life. I can’t put into words how important it is to pay attention to all the things you have chosen in your life. I’m not denying that there are a billion things we don’t get to choose, but we get to choose who we spend our time with. We get to choose to have pets. We get to choose to read cool things and listen to weird podcasts and explore the internet. We get to choose (to some extent) where and who we live with. We get to choose what food we eat and how we wear our hair. And yes, I realize that all of these things are constrained in different ways for different people, but all of us have some choices, and those choices are so important. Pay attention to them. I chose a life partner. I chose goofy little kittens. I chose to spend my time at a big nerd convention. Those facts are powerful.

I realize that all of this is trite. I realize that it only makes me super happy because it’s new. But why does it have to be like that? Why can’t I always think it’s amazing that I have a fiance? Why can’t I spend hours playing with my kittens every week? Because of real life? THIS IS REAL LIFE. Real life is not just the bad awful things. It’s the times when you’re walking on air too. It’s the months where every good thing happens at once. Those aren’t fake reprieves from objective reality. They have to count in your schema too. You cannot make it through life without remembering those things that are good enough that you said yes. Those people that are good enough that you wanted to give them your time.

So just do me a favor and during the nastybad times, remember that all of the good things still exist. Pay attention to your people. Pay attention to what lights you up. It is not bad to look away for a moment and remember why it hurts when life is taken: because life is worth it. Even your life.

What Needs to Be Said About the Orlando Shooting

I’m about to say a lot of things that will not be mind blowing. People have already said all of them, probably better than I can. But I try to think of myself as an ally, and ally is a verb not a noun, which means I need to do something. So if more straight, cis folks like myself need to keep repeating basic truths until America pulls our collective heads out of our asses, then I will do it. Repetition is a key to learning, and straight America has some learning to do.

The shooting in Orlando was a hate crime against the queer community. Gay bars are safe spaces for many people, where they go to find community, support, and acceptance. The shooter has made homophobic comments before. The choice of location was not an accident. This was an attack on the queer community. If you believe that with marriage equality the GLBT community is fine and should stop asking for more, stop and look at what just happened. 50 people were murdered for their sexuality and gender identities. People in the queer community die every day, of suicide and violence and poverty and AIDS left untreated and homelessness. This community is vulnerable, and that vulnerability was exploited in this attack.

The shooting further targeted one of the most vulnerable populations in the US: trans women of color. The club was a popular place for Latinx individuals, and hosted drag shows. It just so happened that the night of the shooting featured Latinx drag performers. This is not a coincidence. The fragile masculinity that pervades America says trans women are a threat to everything we care about. It’s not a surprise that they are the target of so much violence when their very existence is a symbol of fucking the patriarchy.

The shooting in Orlando was a product of toxic masculinity. When physical strength and violence are lauded as the symbols of masculinity, we create people who deal with their problems through violence. The shooter had a history of domestic abuse. When we excuse rape, intimate partner violence, and domestic abuse, we make it so much easier for the violence to just keep escalating. We send the message that violence is how to deal with problems. Toxic masculinity demands that men don’t show emotion and affection, which makes two gay men openly kissing a terrifying and horrifying prospect. It says that men have a dominant role, and any man taking on the woman’s role is a disgusting perversion, giving rise to further homophobia and violence against GLBT individuals, in particular trans women.

The shooting was related to the homophobia rampant in many Islamic communities. The shooting is not an excuse for Islamaphobia. This is where things get a little bit complicated, but I think we can all hold these two truths together. There is homophobia in many Islamic communities. It can contribute to the attitudes of the members of those churches. This is not unique to Islam. Many Christian churches contribute to negative attitudes towards queer people. We need to be able to criticize the damage that religious beliefs are doing without jumping to full blown Islamaphobia that says this man was an extreme terrorist sent by ISIL to destroy America. See the difference? Homophobia in Islam contributed. Every Muslim every is not an evil terrorist.

The shooting is further evidence of America’s gun problem. Yes, America is a unique place and we cannot wholesale import solutions from smaller countries or from Australia. But it is a fact that our gun violence far outstrips other comparable countries and we need to do something. It remains true that guns are dangerously unregulated, and individuals are capable of purchasing unnecessarily high powered weapons that can kill at a rate that knives or homemade weapons cannot. It remains true that guns are less regulated than cars or chemicals or all kinds of other things that are less dangerous. We need to face up to the fact that our obsession with guns is killing people, and we need to start actually doing research into how to make it better.

The shooting is not evidence that the shooter was mentally ill. People with mental illness are far more likely to be the victims of violence than the perpetrators. There are many complex reasons that an individual chooses to commit horrific acts, but dismissing it with “they were insane” lets us off the hook for the ways that we have built a society that fosters violence. It also throws mentally ill people under the bus and makes them responsible for violence when in fact they are an already vulnerable group of people. We do in fact need better care for the mentally ill, but now is not the right time to talk about it.

Finally, and most importantly, if you consider yourself an ally, now is the time to show it. Speak up. Tell your queer friends they can rely on you for support right now. Give blood. Give money to GLBT organizations. This event was horrific, but if you are an ally then you need to step up. I am actively calling on my fellow straight, cis individuals to mop up our mess. Take care of the queer people in your life. It’s the least we can do.

Complaining About Trigger Warnings is Sexist

Now that I have your attention with an overly general headline, let’s talk reality.

For quite some time in Western culture, women have been associated with emotions (nature, the body), and men with rationality (mind, culture). Unsurprisingly, rationality in U.S. society tends to be prioritized over emotions, and people who include their emotions in their arguments or conversations are seen as irrational, bad at argumentation, or just plain weak. I’m not going to get into arguing for the existence of this dichotomy in the Western mind, so check out some basic women’s or feminist studies if you’re cynical.

Simultaneous to this lovely set up, in the past few years we’ve been seeing a whole lot of hooplah about trigger warnings, college students, coddling, and how kids these days are so oversensitive. They’re accused of being too easily offended, of throwing away their freedoms in order to create a safe bubble. Safe spaces are mocked, kids are told they’ll fall apart in the “real world,” and talking heads bemoan the state of the youth.

These two issues are not unrelated. Academia has for quite some time been a bastion for white men, a place where “rationality” is said to rule, and where those whose emotions rule are not allowed. My time in college was a time in which objective inquiry was prized above all else. Emotions were to be eradicated. It is not an accident that this worship of the mind over the body is associated with a place that is traditionally male and has been vehemently guarded against female incursions. It’s also not an accident that the further you go into academics, the more likely you are to encounter horrific sexism, including out of control harassment in a number of graduate programs.

Many of the screeds I have read against the coddled college student use language that has typically been applied to women. Overly emotional. Coddled. Sheltered. Children. These are the same criticisms that were used to keep women from engaging in public dialogue for a long time. Of course women couldn’t vote/go to school/hold office: they think with their emotions. They have emotions, even strong emotions, even emotions that come from trauma and abuse. Of course there are some serious differences, as many of the people asking for trigger warnings are people with mental illnesses, and simply being a woman or having emotions (contrary to much of the history of psychology) is not the same as having a mental illness. But the fear of recognizing emotions and making space for them will always have gendered connotations. The disgust at people having emotions, speaking about their emotions, and asking for their emotions to be taken into account will always have gendered connotations.

When we talk about third and fourth wave feminism and the ways that we can embrace things that are traditionally viewed as feminine instead of simply saying that women can do all that men can do, this is what I think of. I think of the ways that the emotional labor women has done needs to be recognized. I think about the ways that we need to make emotional labor a societal endeavor that is taken on by everyone instead of hidden away to be performed by women in their homes. I think of the ways that new social connections and supports are denigrated, from trigger warnings to snapchat. These are the types of things that women have always done: we have warned each other about people and things that are dangerous, we have been the social glue, we have subtly found ways to guide conversation and topic away from spots that we know are sore. These tasks are becoming public through discussions about safe spaces and trigger warnings. Instead of simply creating our safe spaces in nail salons or other “feminine” places, we are speaking openly about the point and purpose of it, discussing the ways that emotions need to be tended in order to have a functional and healthy society.

And of course we are mocked for it. It is seen as unnecessary, weak, or damaging. More than that, it is seen as a threat. This makes more sense when you view it as the attempt to move emotional labor into the public sphere. Not only is it a demand for recognition of oppression and privilege, it is also a demand that everyone shares equally in creating places where people can be safe from those problems, or places where people who have been hurt, traumatized, or abused, can still participate.

For a long time that was hidden work. That was women’s work. And now it’s in the light. It’s ugly. It’s hard. And a lot of people don’t want to do it. So they whine about free speech and the breakdown of higher education so that they don’t have to face the fact that we are finally speaking openly about our emotional health and asking each other to step up to the plate and support each other.

I’m done idolizing the idea that we should all pretend we don’t have emotions or needs or scars. I’m done pretending that humans should prioritize rationality above all else if that means we don’t recognize our human nature as emotional, embodied creatures. I am over the idea that people in college are delicate flowers who haven’t dealt with real life. Trigger warnings and safe spaces were created to help people with PTSD and other mental illnesses. Those are real life. Those are the kinds of “feminine diseases” we ignored throughout all of history and still cannot figure out how to treat. If college students have found things that help them, then I’m all for it, and I’m sick to death of the horror over oh so weak emotions. I thought we had realized how unhelpful that narrative was with second wave feminism, but I guess we’re fighting the same battles.

So again: emotions are not weak. Asking for help isn’t weak. Particularly if you are someone whose brain is a little different, a little dangerous, it is necessary and vital to ask for help in caring for yourself. Emotions are important parts of human life and they cannot be ignored, even in situations in which it would be much easier if we could all just be perfectly rational beings. None of these things take away freedoms or coddle anyone. They create stronger, interconnected people who can function more healthily. I for one am for emotionally healthy people.

Who Gets To Define Sick?

Disability activism is an area in which I often suck. I’ve only just started to dip my toes into reading work about disability and theories of neurodivergence and so on. Which means that I’m still on the fence about a lot of stuff and thus this post will be fairly speculative (and quite possibly overly 101). Most particularly the thing that I want to focus on today is technology and the way that new technologies interact with disability and illness, especially the ways that we define disability and illness.

For a long time, things like blindness and deafness were not the kinds of things that we debated on whether they were good or bad. We couldn’t change them and so for the most part services for those people were about simply helping them get by in their environments with the skills that they had (when it was decent. Sometimes it just turned into locking them away. That is definitely not good). However with the advent of certain new technologies, we may have the ability to reverse some of these conditions. Cochlear implants are a great example. Deaf individuals can choose to use technology in order to hear as most other people do.

But with the ability to make the change comes the question of whether or not we want to make the change. For many deaf individuals the answer is no. They see deaf as an identity and don’t feel as if they cannot manage in the world as they are. Some deaf people say that cochlear implants are a way of telling deaf people that they’re wrong or less than. If the default position of society and the medical establishment is that you need technology to change a fundamental fact about yourself, it’s certainly easy to see how someone might get the impression that the message being sent is “you need to be fixed.”

On the flip side, there’s really no question that as society today stands, it is easier to be a hearing person than a deaf person. Especially when a baby is born deaf (particularly to hearing parents) and the parents have to decide whether or not to give the child a cochlear implant, most people assume that it would be cruel not to give the child that leg up. Most people speak a verbal language rather than a signed language, most schools and jobs are set up for hearing individuals, technology often relies on sounds. There are some clear benefits to being able to hear.

Let’s change the script a little bit. There are clear benefits to being white in society as it stands today. White people are far more likely to hold high paying or powerful jobs, get promoted, get hired, get good grades. The dialects that are common to African Americans are devalued while standard white dialects are held up as normal and correct. Being black is just harder than being white.

While most people would agree with the second script (and if you don’t then you need to brush up on your racial politics), almost no one would suggest that the solution is to just make black people white. Similarly, many of the reasons that being deaf is hard in society isn’t because there’s something wrong with deaf people but because society is just set up around the needs and abilities of hearing people. We could easily say that life would be easier if we all had more legs (because more is better right?) but the way things are set up now wouldn’t work for those people. There’s nothing inherently better about having doors the size they are or schools set up to teach through vocalizations, it’s just what’s common and works for a lot of people.

The autistic community is a great example of this kind of reframing. The more we learn about autism the more we find out that autism itself doesn’t actually cause very many problems. It’s far more likely that interacting with a society that has different expectations is what causes the problems. When people with autism are met where they are, they’re astoundingly talented and functional (for example when they’re communicated with in clear and literal ways, when they’re allowed to learn while moving or standing, or when they’re given weighted blankets or clothes to help them with sensory sensitivities). The problem comes when everyone assumes that people should all function the same way. It’s actually not that hard to adjust and help meet someone’s needs.

Now to contrast these basic disability 101 concepts let’s look at something that is pretty clearly a problem: eating disorders (I know, I’m repetitive). There are many people with eating disorders who don’t want to go to treatment, take meds, eat food, have therapy, etc. It is a hallmark of eating disorders that people who have them don’t want to get better. And yet we can very clearly point towards the fact that eating disorders are harmful, they can kill you, and when people do recover they tend to see that it was really not in their best interest to resist treatment.

There are some clear differences here: there is no society in which having an eating disorder would make your life easier or better, whereas it’s absolutely possible to have an autistic or deaf community where those conditions are normal and great. But there are other things that live in between these two examples, and with the advent of medical technologies that might be able to cure them, how do we decide what counts as an illness, disease, or disability, and what is simply a difference? Who gets to make those choices? In a wholly hypothetical world, if we could ensure that a child is born hearing, seeing, mentally sound, etc. are we morally obligated to ensure these things because they’re “better”?

At the moment, the medical establishment, whether that be through the DSM, Big Pharma, or doctors, makes most of these decisions. It’s probably good that doctors are involved in the definitions of disease and disability, but what’s really missing is the internal perspectives of the people we define as disabled. There is a lack of respect for the rights of individuals even in cases in which they are clearly harming themselves by not seeking treatment (such as eating disorders, where people are often pressured or bullied into treatment). More than anything, the assumption that a condition has to mean the same thing to every person is a huge problem. Not every deaf person will experience their deafness as an identity they care about, but not everyone experiences it as a hindrance either.

I seriously doubt there will be a clear answer of where to draw the line between “totally acceptable and not a problem difference” and “thing we really should work to change.” But what I worry about is that going forward technology will put more and more power in the hands of government, pharmaceutical companies, and doctors instead of individuals to promote certain treatments. I hope we don’t walk blindly towards it.

Mental Illness Isn’t Your Scapegoat

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: abusive relationships are horrible. We should do everything we can to provide people with information on what an abusive relationship looks like, how to get out of one, and how to stand up for yourself and your boundaries, as well as support for those who are trying to escape an abusive relationship.

There are many good resources out there on how to recognize unhealthy behaviors. There’s also lots of people out there doing work specifically with women and girls to remind us that we don’t deserve abusive relationships.

What is not a good response to abusive behavior is blaming mental illness. I can’t believe I have to say this, but it is 100% possible to have a mental illness, really any mental illness, and not be abusive. This includes individuals with Borderline Personality Disorder, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, and Antisocial Personality Disorder. Pointing towards abusive behaviors as intrinsically linked to any of these disorders is not backed up by facts (there are many abusers who use all of these same tactics and do not have any mental illness), and throws the rest of the individuals with mental illness under the bus in order to advocate for abuse victims.

This article at Self Care Haven has some great information about techniques that many abusers will use. Unfortunately, it couches it entirely in language of “narcissists” and how those individuals behave, rather than recognizing that any abusive individual can make use of these tactics (and many do), and recognizing that a diagnosis of Narcissistic Personality Disorder is not a life sentence to being an abusive person who cannot have real relationships.

Abuse is a pattern of behaviors and interactions. It is not a personality. We don’t get to simply label any behavior we deem bad as “mental illness” in order to ignore how we as a society have contributed to it or in order to brush off any support we could provide for someone to change. I am all for speaking openly about mental illness and the challenges it can present in relationships and everyday life, as this is the best way to improve treatment and diagnosis of mental illness, but more often than not we use the label of “mental illness” to close a conversation about a difficult or painful topic.

Gun violence? They were mentally ill. Start a registry.

Domestic abuse? Mentally ill. Don’t date people with personality disorders.

Do you just disagree with someone? They’re probably mentally ill too.

Here’s the truth: even the personality disorders that make it most difficult to hold down relationships are not a life sentence. Borderline Personality Disorder, which has long been seen as the land of the manipulative and angry, has an evidence based treatment that has high success rates. Many people with BPD have totally functional lives with families, jobs, and everything else a healthy human being might want (ok, maybe not everything, but they lead fairly boring lives for the most part).

There are absolutely highly functioning individuals with Narcissistic Personality Disorder, or Antisocial Personality Disorder. There’s evidence that Cognitive Behavior Therapy can reduce symptoms and increase functioning, allowing patients to form better and healthier relationships. More study is definitely needed, but instead of broadly labeling personality disorders (especially ones that already come with a lack of empathy and distrust of others) as breeding grounds for abusers, perhaps we could put some effort into finding treatment for people who have these disorders.

None of this is to say that people who have mental illnesses should be excused of abusive behavior. But providing information about abusive behaviors and giving tools and support to victims is not mutually exclusive to providing mental health treatment options to abusers, and absolutely does not require that we assume a certain mental illness necessitates abusive behavior.

There are some parallels here to threats of suicide or self harm. If you have a mental illness, there is a possibility you will feel urges to enact these behaviors. Letting a partner or friend know that you are feeling the urges is definitely a good idea. Threatening the behaviors in order to get your partner or friend to do something is not ok and cannot be excused by mental illness. The urges are the same, the behaviors are different, and choosing the healthier route is a skill that can be learned. Similarly, the urge to use and manipulate people might be a hallmark of a personality disorder, but the urge doesn’t necessitate the behavior.

We can do better in how we talk about abuse.