A history of progressive ableism that remains today

For clarity: I know that other progressive activists do great work. This is an anti-ableism post. It should be interpreted in this manner rather than as anti-progressive. 

Introduction

Too often, progressives use ableism to accomplish their goals. I do not mean just using some words that many disabled people consider offensive.  I mean things like advocating for ableist gun reform laws. I also mean things like attributing people’s worst traits to mental health disabilities, like people do with Trump.

In the 20th century, progressives gained momentum. Progressives of this time were not the same as they are today, but the ableism is still around.  Then, the cause to rally around was eugenics. I am providing eugenics as a historical example of progressive ableism – and will point out how it still lurks in undertows of thought.

Historical example: The early 20th century and Progressive Era eugenics

Eugenics was a movement that gained some level of popularity in the early 20th century (and still continues in modern forms today). Supporters of eugenics wanted to prevent the procreation of the “unfit” and promote “better breeding.” Eugenics was popular with progressives, including reformers and activists, of the early 20th century.

The Eugenics Record Office (ERO), intended to serve as a hub for American eugenics research, was financed at one point by the Carnegie Institution. Teddy Roosevelt once wrote a letter to eugenicist Charles Davenport of the ERO about “degenerates” that said:

Farmers who permitted their best stock not to breed, and let all the increase come from the worst stock, would be treated as fit inmates for an asylum. Yet we fail to understand that such conduct is rational compared to the conduct of a nation which permits unlimited breeding from the worst stocks, physically and morally… Someday we will realize that the prime duty… of the good citizen of the right type, is to leave his or her blood behind him in the world; and that we have no business to permit the perpetuation of citizens of the wrong type.

A reformer included Victoria Woodhull, a suffragist known for being the first woman to run for president (in 1872). Another was inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Several groups of feminist reformers, including the National League of Women Voters, had eugenics-based legal reform as part of their goals.

Stop making me have to defend insidious people from ableism

Bigoted actions and words from Trump are the result of bigotry. And bigotry is not a mental health disability, though people with mental health disabilities can also be bigots. We are people and vary in thoughts and opinions. But I’d really like prominent progressive activists to acknowledge this and stop making the case for Trump being crazy. That way, people with mental health disabilities won’t face as much ableism. And I won’t have to keep defending insidious people from ableism. 

I defend even people I loathe from ableism because public figure he may be, but attributing bigotry to disability hurts all people with mental health disabilities. And I do it also because when progressives pull out the “But no sane person would do that!” or “Trump is crazy!” lines, this is what they are saying:

Only crazy people can be responsible for such vile acts.

It’s the line of thinking that mental health disability must be responsible for acts society can’t explain, acts society considers terrible. The unintentional undertones of this speak of eugenics to me. Eugenicists of the past posited that many people, especially marginalized people, had increased rates of poverty and crime due to mental and moral “deficits.”

Today, mental health is blamed for everything, from mass shootings to having a poor moral compass – and Donald Trump’s actions and bigotry. Right-wingers and the GOP are the party of eugenics themselves, for sure, and I find that loathsome. But progressives should stop blaming mental health as they oppose damaging policies and actions.  

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Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) Wrote Books and Had a Service Dog

carrie-fisher

[Image description: Three images related to Carrie Fisher. From left to right, Carrie Fisher wearing glasses and kneeling next to her service dog, the French Bulldog Gary, at a red carpet event; Carrie Fisher dressed in white as Princess Leia with her iconic hair buns, surrounded by Stormtroopers; and Carrie Fisher’s book Wishful Drinking, which has her name, the title, and an image of Carrie Fisher with hair buns facedown on a table with a martini glass in her hand.]

In high school, it was mentioned to me in passing by someone that Carrie Fisher, whom I knew as Princess Leia, had bipolar disorder.

I shrugged, and said, “Oh, okay.” She was still Princess Leia.

Sure, depressive episodes and generalized anxiety made up a majority of my days, a damp humid cloak like the Georgia summers I liked to wander down the streets in – alone. An autistic, depressed, anxious wreck, isolated and considered socially unacceptable. But Carrie Fisher was just Princess Leia, right?

I never thought she meant much to me besides her role in Star Wars until a short while ago. In college, I became invested in disability rights and later, after my first and second hospitalizations in a psych ward, mental health rights as well. Each discharge from the hospital read that I had major depressive disorder, not bipolar disorder. Each hospital had only seen me for suicidality. They didn’t see the times I felt higher than the hills I once wanted to die on, and faster than the too-fast DC Metro trains. I find the Metro a relatable metaphor. I too sometimes go too fast, experience frequent malfunctions, and occasionally derail.

But I find her more than a relatable metaphor. Carrie Fisher was a bipolar person who dealt with substance abuse issues. She was often considered socially unacceptable. She openly spoke about her mental health disability, and substance abuse issues (which were in part an attempt to keep her manic episodes in check). She was open about her dog Gary’s role as a service animal and took him to public events. And she was also the actress who played Princess Leia, a mother, an author, and a script doctor who edited scripts.

She was Princess Leia, and she was also an outspoken mental health advocate.

I owe her a lot.

For talking about about everything in the open. For being Princess Leia but also someone who employed a great number of coping strategies for her mental health, and talked about them. For sometimes being considered socially unacceptable.

For showing me that she, Carrie Fisher – Princess Leia – was as outspoken in real life as she was on screen. For showing me that it’s possible to be vocal about personal struggles and what you don’t like – and what is good – about your brain and yourself.

On #WorldMentalHealthDay

In much the same way I am tired of awareness for autism, I am tired of mental health awareness. I understand that autism is different from mental health disabilities, that there are also many autistic people with mental health disabilities who dislike autism awareness but don’t mind mental health awareness. I am not one of them.

When I hear you talk about awareness for mental health disabilities, when you say, “This is a serious condition affecting this many people,” or “this many people have a mental illness!” or “we need to focus on access to care,” I hear, much like many autistics hear the same when autism awareness campaigns occur:

We are an epidemic. We are a public health crisis (and get named as such). We are only DSM diagnoses and flight risks and patients and if we’re not trying to hide ourselves we are a failure to a model that teaches us the best patients are telling their stories of how they got better to end the stigma. We are merely the rates of our mental health disabilities among people.

In fact, I would argue that only having stories of getting better hurts those people who may not get better. And why can’t we talk about issues like employment (or better benefits for those who would have a hard time working), access to housing, before access to care? Access to care, if desired, should follow meeting basic needs. It’s a little hard to focus on any sort of treatment when basic needs aren’t being met.

I am tired of awareness. Why do we have more people talking about access to hospitalization instead of peer respite care? Where are our community-based supports? Where are our warmline projects to prevent crises? Where are our self-directed services? Where are they?

Trump and the Language of Mental Health around his Bigotry

A conversation that I wasn’t entirely enamored with occurred on Twitter recently regarding Donald Trump and mental health. This was between writers, journalists, and people with mental health needs (or people who fell into more than one of those categories) who agreed that Trump “doesn’t have the temperament to be President.” They disagreed about “whether [they] needed to frame temperament-issues in terms of mental health.” David Perry wrote about this – whether it was advisable to frame Trump’s behavior through a mental health framework. He presented varying arguments from multiple sides of the discussion. Some of the arguments included, several in response to each other:

  • argument 1: not talking about Trump’s mental health would increase stigma via silence on mental health
  • argument 2: “if he were dxed would… agree with you,” and that it was the armchair diagnosis speculation and use of “insane” as insulting that bothered them.
  • argument 3: temperament isn’t the result of mental illness
  • argument 4: mental illness is not a reason to be unfit for public office
  • argument 5: Trump isn’t right in the head and not even politicians are that self-centered
  • and it went on with other points, some that could be categorized under others.

I am quite inclined to agree with Finn of Expectedly that “Wrong does not mean crazy.” Finn wrote:

Trump’s disgusting plans are not the result of a mental illness; they’re the result of deep-set, unbridled bigotry that he’s exploiting to worm his way into the White House… The Republican Party as a whole deserves to be blasted… But this isn’t about mental illness; it’s about entrenched white supremacy, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, Christian supremacy and other prejudices.
People need to stop claiming that politicians – and their supporters – whose political views differ from theirs as a sign of a mental illness, as though people can’t hold different political beliefs without considering them rationally. This stereotype also comes with the insinuation that mental illness necessarily means the lack of agency required to arrive at a reasoned political decision, which is grossly untrue.

Discussing Trump’s mental health status is kind of getting into the territory where people will use it to say that people with mental health needs can’t be effective candidates for public office if they choose to run. People are also so eager to blame bigotry on mental health needs. It helps people, in my opinion, distance themselves from the thought that they could ever be bigoted about anything (when I don’t know one person who hasn’t screwed up in that regard at least once).

So, sure, being erratic and lying a lot could be a sign of mental health needs, but that doesn’t mean it’s the reason for things like Trump being a bigot. I’d like to make the point that people with mental health needs are people with many varying viewpoints on the world so if a person with mental health needs is a bigot, I would argue that the mental health needs are most often a coincidence. I know people with mental health needs who have done less than pleasant things – even, perhaps, said hurtful things about groups of people – in the middle of any sort of episode. I have had episodes where I’ve said less than stellar things, though I don’t think I’ve ever said bigoted things because of an episode – but I think it’s too easy to write Trump off as being a delusional, pathologically lying narcissist.

Finally, I really, really don’t think that talking about it in this context will lead to less stigma. In certain contexts? Remaining silent about mental health needs absolutely can increase stigma, can result in mental health needs being the bogeyman in the closet, a family’s dark secret, you get the drift – and I also advocate for the consent of the person in question. Even though Trump is a political figure and thus invites judgment, I feel like discussing it in this context invites severe judgment on people with mental health needs. It links bigotry to mental health needs because Trump is such a bigot that if people think Trump + mental health needs, they are going to start associating mental health needs with Trump-type bigotry.

*  * *

Everyone, particularly other people with mental health needs – and especially those with particularly stigmatized diagnoses like bipolar I/II/NOS, schizophrenia, or any mental health need involving psychosis, for instance – is welcome to weigh in on this. Read the comment policy before submitting a comment; I moderate comments. 

“end the stigma” and ableism in the same breath

They mention Adam Lanza. They always mention Adam Lanza. The mentally ill need treatment, they say. They’ll end up like Adam Lanza. End the stigma, they say. Talk about your mental illness! We can end the stigma by you sharing your stories and struggles. Then they mention Adam Lanza.

Treatment is important. No one has access to treatment. Treatment is code for institutionalization. People with mental illness are in jail a lot! Like the man in the tree, who should be hospitalized indefinitely – the solution to incarceration is more hospital beds, they say.

Someone lies down on the floor in the hospital. They medicate him. Someone gets forcibly medicated, restrained, made fun of, and mistreated in the hospital. No one cares.  The faceless professionals give you a sleeping aid, a paper-thin blanket and an anti-anxiety drug, sometimes more. They give you a paper cup with water to take the pills with. The pills will keep you safe, they say. There are more pills. There have always been pills. The side effects don’t matter, historically and now. But – end the stigma of being in the hospital! Hospitals are good for people. They are friendly places that only want to help. They help! They can keep people from turning into Adam Lanza.

Your hospital bills come in the mail. They charge you over a thousand dollars with insurance. If you don’t have insurance, well, good luck. They charge you for the psychiatrist. They charge you for the therapists. They charge you for the ER visit. They charge you for general inpatient stay.  There are a lot of bills. They send you another hospital bill every week.

You can recover, they say! Just try harder. Be compliant. Doctors know best. No self-directed services. You don’t know what’s best for you, they say. Recovery should be your goal. Recovery is the only thing worth trying for when you’re mentally ill. End the stigma, they say. Talk about recovery.

You tweet into the #MHM2016 hashtag with a post you wrote as a mentally ill person expressing displeasure at the focus on access to treatment. You get exactly one retweet and two favorites. No one else notices or engages with you.

The members of Congress consider legislation, H.R. 2646, that will slash funding for programs to keep you from being homeless and restrict programs that protect your rights. Forced treatment is more important than stable housing, after all. They mean you belong in a hospital. They mention Adam Lanza.

Family members write articles called “I am Adam Lanza’s Mother.” They are always talking about Adam Lanza and treatment. Treatment is important. No one has access to treatment. Treatment is code for institutionalization. The Protection and Advocacy for People with Mental Illness (PAIMI) programs made my child homeless, they complain, they could have gone to an institution instead!

President Obama makes remarks about the San Bernardino shooters being sick in the head. The Obama administration declares May Mental Health Awareness Month. May officially is on your blacklist now.

Using People with Mental Illness as Clickbait Hurts Us

Bad articles on the problems we face can hurt and kill people. Write better.

Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.
I have been on medication for a long time, first for ADHD, then anxiety, then depression. I have intermittently had periods of wanting to die since age 14. My most recent full-blown crisis landed me in the hospital. It was not a question for my friends whether they still wanted me alive, even as I lay bare every problem and feeling I was having. They wanted me alive.
Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.

Evidence suggests that there is an increase in suicides following media reports of suicide, which is frequently referred to as copycat behaviour or as the Werther effect… The risk is thought to depend not only on reader characteristics,2,3 but also on media content. 35 


While the author of a certain xoJane article did not report the person’s death as a suicide, she left open the implication with a “supposedly” and the method of “supposed” death. She wrote an article that openly told us what we should do and tried to tell us how much she thought our lives were worth. It was a grim reminder of some people’s mindsets, but we do not have to bow to her desires.
With that knowledge, writers, know you are writing about people who deserved to be alive, and your audience are people who deserve to be alive, and your audience includes people who may already be prone to suicidal ideation. You are responsible for encouraging us to die if you write a sensationalized drama with explicit details. That is not a thing to take lightly or relish. It is a thing to make you hold yourselves accountable in your writing.
Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.
What do we do instead? What do I do instead? My friend wrote on how to talk about suicide, and about taking care of ourselves and each other in advocacy-based communities, which see a lot of burnout and stress. We should demand that people write more responsibly, as per what my friend gathered information on. We should take care of each other when they don’t. I will try to stop writing so much about things when I’m off work. We should set healthy boundaries for each other but still show support.  

And writers should stop writing sensationalized dramas about mental illness, regardless of whether it’s about suicide. Writers of all kinds, this applies to you. These are our stories and our lives, and we want them respected by all, not showcased as some kind warning story, some kind of pity-narrative, some kind of revenge-story, some kind of sensationalized odd horror feature story. You can hurt people. Take some accountability. 
Dear everyone, including myself: We deserve to be alive. We have the right to self-directed services and whatever works best for us. We deserve to be alive. Stay alive. Stay alive.

People with Mental Illness Deserve to be Alive

Originally published on Medium

XoJane recently published an article about someone with schizoaffective disorder’s death being a blessing. Outrage ensued. The author’s name became anonymous. The editors of xoJane, at least temporarily, locked their Twitter profiles, then released this apology:

Screencap of: “I apologize for an article that was posted here yesterday, entitled “My Former Friend’s Death Was a Blessing.” I deeply regret the hurt that this article has caused and understand that it has perpetuated stigma and diminished the lives of people with mental illness. I am committed to immediately reviewing our vetting process to ensure that this experience has a positive influence on the ways in which we at xoJane present all women going forward. I appreciate all of you who took the time to let us know how you felt about this issue.”

I will not link to the archived version of the article right now. I would like to focus on what happens when you write about these topics like that. When you write that it’s better that people with mental health needs — especially people with particularly shunned diagnoses — die, this is what I know about you: I do not trust you with anyone. And I do not trust anyone who would post such a thing. I do not know the motivation of an editor allowing it to be posted. There are a multitude of reasons people have suggested, most of them related to increasing page hits and profit. A lot of people already think our lives have no value. They will continue to visit the page. Or, people outside the disability rights/mental health communities will not hear about it.

What happens when you write this way is a lot. It first of all tells people with mental illness — and again especially those with more shunned diagnoses — that people think we’re better off dead. It confirms some of our worst fears, our darkest, deepest worries. I do not think there is any data on this, but I suspect this way of writing about us encourages people to kill themselves.

It also presumes to know what the person with mental illness would have wanted. It presumes that we always think of ourselves as shells, better off dead, and that our suffering will always outweigh our right and desire to live. And indeed, some of us do feel that we are suffering a lot, and/or have suicidal ideation. I spent time in a hospital this January to prevent a suicide attempt! But writing that you know they’d be happy with the way they died and that being dead is better for them perpetuates in a very active way negative self-value and more fear and more, “Well, no one will miss me if I die.”

Then, it reinforces the narrative to other people, casual readers, that we are miserable, soulless unpeople. That with how uncomfortable we make people, we ought to be dead. Like I’ve mentioned in other pieces, we are at best inconvenient and uncomfortable to people. People are allowed to be uncomfortable with actions and statements, and assert boundaries — I have said awkward things to people in episodes of my cyclical mental illness and done my share of sometimes screwing up — but to capitalize off it and further the idea that we’re inherently bad and wrong and unpeople is unethical.