06 Sep

This is going to be a blunt post. I am grumpy and in no mood for literary crafting.

I am grumpy about the number of election-related social media posts where mental illness is casually used as a way to talk about politicians, parties and policies their author doesn’t like. My anger is not on behalf of those at the receiving end. It is for me and the mental illness social discourse generally. It’s also for a few friends and acquaintances who’ve partaken of this activity and should know better.

The kinds of posts I’m talking about usually take one of three forms. The first is where some kind of political thing is compared to mental illness because it’s ‘funny’. The second is where the comparison is made for reasons of contempt. And the third is a kind of Dunning-Kruger situation where ‘serious’ diagnoses are made. All three are insulting, arrogant, ignorant bullshit and I am going to tell you why.

Before continuing, a few caveats regarding content -

Individual politicians, parties and/or policies are irrelevant. Mental illness-related remarks span the ideological spectrum, and all offend me equally. The issue is separate from my own politics.

I use some racist, sexist and ableist statements that are really not OK. I don’t do it lightly but want to forcibly make the point that mental illnessist(?) comments work in the exact same way and are equally abhorrent. 

Please bear this in mind when you’re reading. They are not my opinions.

I will be hard-core generalising throughout. Like I said, today there’s no attempt at any kind of compositional nuance. Besides, you’ll know if I’m not talking about you. 

All the examples I use are real and recent, although I’ve paraphrased for brevity. I am sticking with the parties and politicians specified but honestly you could replace any one of them with any other.

And finally, I have bipolar. My broader point is valid but yeh, it’s personal.

Me being grumpy

They think they know 

Before I get into the detail of the different kinds of statements – humorous, contemptuous, diagnostic - I have some general comments about their shared foundation. All three are based in an assumed ‘knowingness’. That is, members of the general population think they know how mental illness manifests. I assume it’s due to a hundred years of intense cultural representation across all media. And I think it’s probably a subconscious thing or at least something that’s never questioned because it’s collectively ‘obvious’.*

Anyway, whatever the reason or situation, lots of people think they know how mental illness looks and sounds and the kinds of cognitive and behavioural impacts it can have. They think they know it when they see it and so are confident and/or oblivious about their right to discuss it.

But guess what? They do not know. Mental illness behaviours are incredibly complex. They’re inconsistent, uniform, contextualised, universal, concerning, impressive, grounded, in the clouds, loud, quiet, absent, present, happy, sad, wet, dry, messy, clean, isolated, social, ridiculous and serious. Manifestations are so complex/ambiguous that even highly trained professionals struggle to reliably grasp them, let alone diagnose them as specific conditions. And if psychiatrists don’t know then social media regular joes definitely do not know

Basically everyone making dumb politics-as-mental-illness comments is coming from a place of ignorance and is displaying arrogance. Straight up. 

And now let us now explore some of the insulting social media consequences of this. As I said I’m going to look at three kinds of posts - those that are ‘funny’, those that are contemptuous and those that are diagnostic. Also a reminder that I’m going to do this mainly by using gross statements about vulnerable groups, no longer considered socially ok (unlike those about the mentally ill apparently).

Comments that are ‘funny’

The example I’m going to use here is a perennial classic. It’s the one that goes, Imagine you’re in the psych ward. Which friend is rocking in the corner? Who thinks they’re Jesus? Who is talking to themseves? Who is addicted to benzos? Etc.1

I’ve seen it used in relation to a bunch of different groups; imagine the All Blacks are in the psych ward… or imagine your co-workers are in the psych ward.. or imagine the characters from Harry Potter are in the psych ward… This time it was imagine the National Party are in the psych ward… 

Now obviously this is hilarious because you get to think about individuals behaving in crazy craaaazy ways – Christopher Luxton in his suit rocking in a corner clutching a baby blanket? Crack up! 

No. And in the first of my offensive analogies I’m using ethnicity to illustrate why. Here we go,

Imagine you’re in the Cherokee Tribe. Which National Party member is smoking the peace pipe? Who’s wearing the headdress? Who’s dancing around the totem pole chanting? Who’s running the casino? 

The two comments are the same and neither is OK.

Comments that are contemptuous

This category is particularly yuck because it’s based on the idea that being mentally ill is one of the worst things you can be. Describing someone/thing in relation to mental illness is therefore massively insulting and a strong expression of contempt.

Here’s an example,

The Labour Party are pathetically trying to appeal to the left and right at the same time. They don’t know what they are. So bipolar.  

Now let’s offensively reimagine this using gender identity,

The Labour Party are pathetically trying to appeal to the left and right at the same time. They don’t know what they are. So transgender.

The two comments are the same and neither is OK.

Diagnostic comments

These are the kinds of posts that make me roll my eyes so severely I get dizzy. They’re where whoever’s commentating seriously thinks a mental illness is affecting a politician and based on some tenuous ‘expert’ claim, make a spurious diagnosis.

The other day for example, I read a proclamation that was something like, 

David Seymour needs to see a psychiatrist and get some medication. 

I responded with, 

It’s not OK to use mental illness to describe politicians you think are shit.

I got this quite patronising reply,

Narcissism is officially included in the DSM-5 and David Seymour is ‘clearly’ a narcissist.2 

Sigh. Time to make another unpleasant parallel, this time with physical appearance. It goes,

David Seymour needs to see a dietician and get some food into him... Based on the Ministry of Health BMI formula David Seymour is ‘clearly’ anorexic.3 

The two comments are the same and neither is OK.

Stop doing it, just stop.

[*] I have previously written here in more detail about people 'knowing'

[1] And everyone's seen One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Girl Interrupted so they know just what it’s like in a psychiatric hospital.

[2] DSM-5 stands for the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. This is a very fat, intense reference book of standard classifications for mental disorders, designed for use by health professionals. It’s contentious and problematic and anyone who quotes it to me as a definitive source instantly loses all credibility (especially if they’re not a psychiatrist).

[3] BMI stands for Body Mass Index which is medical industry calculation based on a person's weight and height. It’s often used to quantify whether or not someone is 'too' large or small. It’s a problematic tool and its use comes with all kinds of qualifiers.

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