I’ve been having some thoughts lately, mostly triggered by some recent events in the news. It’s about people’s language around mental illness. I have just a bit of trouble with names like loony, whack job, etc. being casually tossed around to label someone who is in psychiatric pain. I hear this every day of my life, and it dismays me. We often talk about “the other”, and I can’t think of a worse example of ostracism for something that is not the person’s fault.
But I am also struggling with the fact that people still sometimes use terms like “committed”,“ arrested” and “incarcerated” when referring to someone who is in so much pain that they are a danger to themselves and, perhaps, those around them.
Being in hospital because you’re suffering to that degree is not like being dragged off to jail. Even if a person is “committed” (which I didn’t think existed any more), they can sign themselves out after 24 hours. They are not in leg irons. They are not being unfairly labelled “crazy” for their personal beliefs and left on some archipelago with the rest of the raving loonies. This perception is a “snake pit” mentality that harks back to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Sometimes people’s judgement is seriously “off”. What is the alternative for someone who has just said that he is going to kill himself? Just leave him there, send him home? If he were bleeding to death or had a heart attack or was in some other kind of life-threatening danger, I am sure he would be rushed to treatment. Why can’t we see suicide threats the same way? I think it’s because people are expected to just get it together on their own. Shape up. To accept help is to take on a stigma that might, perish the thought, hurt one’s career or standing in the community. (“You know what happened to him, don’t you?”) Some people, believe it or not, would rather die.
Why is a suicidal emergency so different? Because, I believe, we still look at mental illness with horror, paranoia and dread. Misinformation and ignorance is rampant. I’ve never heard of anyone being dragged off to the snake pit against his/her will, and it is extremely hard to get into the average psychiatric facility because there are never any beds (which should tell people something, but there’s an uncomfortable silence around it).
I watched an old TV show the other day, one of those black-and-white dramas, in which a husband and wife were accusing each other of being crazy. The term “put away” was used at least fifteen times. “Put away” is something you use to describe storing cups in a cupboard. But it also implies that you are “done”, that you will never live in the “real” world again. We don’t use this term any more – or at least, not often. But “incarcerated” is almost as damning.
The situation I’m writing about – and I’m sorry I can’t be more explicit, but I am not prepared to do that – seemed to trigger language that was, to say the least, dated, but also fraught with – what? Rage seemed to be uppermost, but I can’t tell for sure because I don’t personally know the people involved.
The first time I heard the term homophobic, I was very confused. Phobic means – fearful. Why would people be fearful of homosexuals? What did this have to do with their prejudice?
Everything. For fear comes of ignorance, and ignorance can be more willful than we want to know. I found this whole situation depressing because it also snagged into personal and professional hierarchies, elitism, and the unassailable power of the patriarchy, not to mention sweeping aside claims of sexual assault. (And where have I heard THAT one before?).
We pay a lot of lip service to "reducing the stigma" (never eliminating it, as if that is just too gargantuan a task to even consider) and asking people to "reach out for help", neatly leaving it in THEIR hands when they may be too ill to reach out for anything. In cases like this, who will step up, who will be there to fill the void? In too many cases, no one, and the person decides life is too unbearable to continue with. Then it's "well, he just refused to reach out for help, so. . . "
I don’t know how much of this will be resolved (or even improved) in my lifetime. Looking at what has happened to women’s rights in the past few years, we might even go back to leg irons and snake pits. But for God’s sake, people, watch your language! Real human beings are involved. Equating a psychiatric facility with a prison implies some kind of crime, and there is no crime. The gulag is not part of anybody’s reality now.