The Shaming of People With Mental Health Needs

A recovery-ish narrative is fine for people who want it. The story featuring Eric Walton and his mother is something more than that, though. Filed under “inspired news” in the Washington Post, it describes the blessing of his diagnosis and his new medication that finally worked, which came after his mother publicly shamed him in a blog post called “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”

Yes, as he was age 13 and hospitalized for undiagnosed bipolar, she compared him to a serial killer, scared he would turn out like Adam Lanza, the shooter at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Why air this on the internet? To give a face to the pain, apparently, but why add more trouble and shame to someone who was dealing with a lot already? Too, it reinforced the notion that “mentally ill people are mass shooters!!!!”

It reminds me, of course, of the very public way many non-autistic parents of autistic children post videos of their children’s meltdowns and toileting needs to “share the experience of autism” (autism is a developmental disability, not a mental health need, but the parallels are striking)

Also, we know there needs to be more support for parents. Really, most people (except apparently the government or people who fund services, mostly) have grasped that. But needing more support does not equal getting to publicly share your children’s hygiene needs or meltdowns or outbursts or personal details. It is, in fact, possible to advocate with some level of dignity for your child. Really, most self-advocates for disability and mental health understand that parents need more support and also want the best outcomes for people’s children, albeit sometimes with major disagreements about how to proceed to gain these best outcomes.

There are many things wrong with the story.

There are many things wrong with portraying this public shaming as acceptable.

Too, the Internet recently turned its attention to Jake Lloyd, the former child star who played Anakin Skywalker in “The Phantom Menace,” part of the Star Wars franchise. Recently released from jail into a “psychiatric facility” because of schizophrenia – or, should I say, society’s preference to put people with mental health needs in coercive treatment in hospitals, away from sight.

The internet did so in a way that tore him apart and treated him like a spectacle, broken and mentally ill and in desperate need of a 24/7 psychiatric hospital. Naturally, they will treat him when he emerges not as a survivor of a coercive system but as a broken shell, stigmatizing him beyond what my words can express.

People should be able to talk about psychiatric hospitalization without shame and also to tell of the problems inherent to the system.

I almost walked into my therapist the other day outside the Metro. No, he’s not my therapist. He was my therapist. I burn with shame and want to run across the street to get away, but the light is red. He works in the psych ward.

On the same day, someone who climbed a sequoia tree and remained there for twenty-four hours during an episode of psychosis’s story appeared on someone’s Facebook newsfeed as a prop for HR 2646, the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act. The man who climbed the tree is now in jail and faces $50,000 bail. His mother apparently wants to fight for the Murphy Bill because the legal system is blocking her efforts to get him psychiatric treatment.

Dear everyone: stop using people with mental illness as your props. The Murphy Bill would cut the funding to community-based programs that help people with mental illness find homes, legal programs that protect their rights, among other things. What the Murphy Bill does is force medication and treatment in psychiatric hospitals. It is a plan that does not fix the broken health care system. 

Of course, people with mental health needs in crisis mode are lucky if they not victims of police violence, especially people of color with mental health needs. This is also a major issue that should be spoken of more often and structural reforms pushed for.

But the public shaming of people with mental health needs also needs to stop. A coercive and dehumanizing psychiatric treatment system needs structural reforms as well, as I have written about extensively, before we push people into it. And lastly, if someone does enter that system, they should be free to talk about it without being shamed, without being treated like an unperson and like they are broken, to blog about the problems with the system and be listened to instead of being written off.

The people who need to be invited to the mental health conversation table are those thought to be the least able to communicate about it. We should treat people with mental health needs as people. Because people like me (perhaps not dealing with it as visibly), and people who are more visibly dealing with mental health needs, are people.

One thought on “The Shaming of People With Mental Health Needs

  1. Good points. The people LIVING with mental health needs are the ones who are most effected. Their family members may think of a person's mental health needs as something they (the family members) have to deal with, or something the community has to deal with… but it is the people living with those needs every day who should really be heard.


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