The legal standard for incarcerating people in psychiatric facilities and forcing “treatment” in the US is supposed to be that a person is a danger to self or others. Armed protesters who stormed the Michigan State Capitol and had previously threatened lawmakers because of coronavirus restrictions were not labeled mentally ill, incarcerated, or made to take psychiatric drugs. Why not? Lawmakers were so frightened that at least one wore a bulletproof vest. For some reason, these protesters had a social capital that people who are labeled mentally ill, not to mention peaceful Black protesters who were met with rubber bullets, tear gas, and arrests, lack. Why are the powerful allowed to be violent and destructive, when the most marginalized among us are incarcerated against our will for being non-violent, but “mentally ill”?
Those armed protesters, who were a genuine threat, may have been seen by some as heroes fighting unconstitutional infringement of their rights. Yet anyone labeled mentally ill, especially with the most damning labels like schizophrenia, are viewed as a potential threat to the common good with the slightest misstep. Were the police waiting until the protesters started shooting and killing people before they decided they were a threat? And the protesters did this in response to coronavirus restrictions. How would they respond if their human rights were actually violated, like many who wind up with a label of serious mental illness?
When I became psychotic because of SSRI antidepressant use, I thought my parents were poisoning me with arsenic and cyanide. So, I ran away from home to find safe haven at Church, where I expected to find the Corinthians who would rescue me. It was a hot October day, and I was wearing a sweater and walking quite fast. I felt my heart pounding, and thought I was dying, overheating from poison. So, I took my sweater off and threw it in the street just to survive.
On the way to Church, I asked a woman to call 911 for me, because I needed an ambulance, because I thought I was dying from poison. Instead of an ambulance, a bunch of cops showed up. I was talking nonsensically to them when I was spooked by one of their name tags. It said, “Officer Bills.”
I thought, “Bills, bills, Officer Bills. They don’t care about me, they only care about paying their bills.” So, I ran away from them. They chased after me until I was stopped at a red light. They stopped a number of feet behind me. But I was scared. So, I ran against the red light into traffic.
The police later described me as a threat to self because of what I had done, and that was why I needed to be committed. And for this, I was expected to take a lifetime—a very shortened lifetime—of powerful, ruinous psychiatric drugs and “therapy.”
Because the “mentally ill,” especially those with the most damning labels, have been grouped together as all potentially dangerous, every thought, word, and behavior by someone so labeled can be suspect—by friends and family, the public, the police, and certainly mental health professionals. This widespread belief not only sometimes results in incarceration in a mental “hospital” or institution with forced psychiatric drugging, but also sometimes court-ordered outpatient “treatment.”
If someone has committed some heinous crime, let them pay their debt to those impacted and society in prison. But people should be free to make their own medical decisions, and psychiatry always presents itself as being rooted in legitimate science and medicine.
The mental health industry thrives on this perception that mental illness can be a menace to the public good. Without this, how could they possibly justify what they actually do to people? Just as some people believe torturing suspected terrorists is acceptable (incidentally, it was psychologists who came up with waterboarding), plenty of people feel that taking away the human rights or dignity of the “mentally ill” is fine, since we are all a potential threat.
“Advocacy” groups like to say that the majority of the mentally ill do not commit crimes. But in blaming even some horrific behavior on an endogenous mental illness—a broken brain, or some kind of a mysterious “disease”—they blame us all. It’s like attributing some terrorism to certain practices or beliefs in Islam. If it were true that Islam sometimes produces terrorists, all Muslims would become potential suspects. Pope Francis frequently points out that there is no such thing as Islamic terrorism. It is also important to point out that “mental illness,” as an endogenous biological disease, never causes violence either.
Just as some extremists attribute their violence to religious ideals, some people attribute theirs to a biological mental illness, as the mental health industry has taught them to believe. That some people claim such things doesn’t make it true. And that other people associate other people’s violence with religion and/or mental illness also doesn’t make it true. The reasons behind violence don’t always lend themselves to easy answers, and may sometimes be totally unknowable.
The association—in the public’s mind—between violence and mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia, is so strong, and a diagnosis so incriminating, that “the FBI had diagnosed Malcolm X with ‘pre-psychotic paranoid schizophrenia.’” “It was a way of engendering anxiety about [him].”
If it were true that “mental illness” was a big source, or the source, of violence, and that psychiatry had safe and effective treatments that turned bad people into good people, their approach might seem reasonable. But there is nothing medical about that. You would expect that people who proclaim to have effective treatments for immorality would be highly ethical people. So, why is it that psychiatrists prescribe antipsychotics to innocent “schizophrenics,” “bipolars,” and others that not only cause brain damage, but also heart disease, diabetes, and other disabling and deadly outcomes? Previous psychiatric treatments, which were also touted as legitimate medicine, like insulin coma therapy and lobotomy, killed innocent people too. Maybe psychiatrists should take antipsychotics to make themselves moral, if that is how it works.
When I confronted my current psychiatrist with the fact that antipsychotics can shorten your lifespan by fifteen to twenty-five years, he said, “No, a few years.” And added, “That’s only if you have heart problems.” Psychiatric drugs took my bad cholesterol from a normal level to a little over 300. And he is the best, most decent, moral psychiatrist I have ever had. The others wouldn’t admit to any potential real harms from the drugs. Even if it is “only” a few years, shouldn’t I have been informed of that possibility before I was forced to take antipsychotics, so I could decide for myself whether or not I wanted to risk it? Are cancer patients denied treatment, because it would “only” extend their lives by a few years? And if quality of life is a concern, isn’t that the patient’s decision to make?
A “schizophrenic, bipolar” man, Jason Harrison, was shot and killed by two cops, because they claimed he would have killed one of them with a screwdriver otherwise. His mother had called the police to get him back to the mental hospital, because he had “gone off his meds,” and she was afraid of him. His sudden psychosis was likely to be a withdrawal symptom.
This woman obviously had no desire to harm her son. She was doing what she felt was best for him with the information she had been given. She had called the police on previous occasions and had him safely taken to the hospital.
The police who killed Jason were certainly aggressive. Is what they did less horrible, in the eyes of the public and the grand jury, because the man they killed was “mentally ill”? If he had been a “good,” hard-working, family man (a man without a psychiatric diagnosis, of course), would they have been indicted? Those policemen proved themselves to be a danger to others, using lethal force when it wasn’t necessary to protect themselves. But they go free, while the “mentally ill” are incarcerated and forced to take deadly drugs just for seeming to be a danger to self or others.
If dangerousness is a legitimate reason to incarcerate people, what about wealthy, politically powerful war criminals who are responsible for the killing of hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians? What about exploitative economic practices that deprive people of a living wage and decent working conditions, including importing things known to be produced with slave labor? What about psychiatrists who force and deceive people into taking deadly drugs? Their behaviors, more than a mere threat, actually do damage and kill people.
It may be relatively easy to subdue and control a screaming, angry “schizophrenic” chemically, but how do we subdue and control rich and powerful people who get away with crimes against humanity in fine style? It might be better stated that the “mentally ill” are deprived of human and civil rights when we are perceived to be a socially unacceptable threat to self or others. Unlike socioeconomically and legally powerful psychiatrists and wealthy politically powerful war criminals, the “mentally ill” are typically pretty powerless. And therein lies our main crime.
The fact that powerful people can literally get away with killing innocent people, while the homeless (much less the “mentally ill” homeless) can’t even get away with loitering, points to massive failures in our political and legal structures, as well as lack of awareness and indifference to others on the part of the general public.
If the cultural and socioeconomic structures of society had, from the beginning, allowed me to function, and even thrive, I undoubtedly never would have felt a need for antidepressants and “therapy.” The same is probably true for a lot of people who get caught up in the mental health industry. The industry doesn’t actually help the poor, the marginalized, the trauma victims. It exploits us.
How best to deal with violence, whether it be physical, economic, racial, ethnic, sexual, psychiatric, verbal, emotional, or any other kind, is a place for philosophers, voters, the incarcerated, the victims, economists and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, or anyone who has a stake in how societies are run, which is everyone, to discuss.
A country where people’s human rights are determined by wealth, social privilege, and power is a sick country. We aren’t supposed to be wild animals. How the weakest members of society are treated can sometimes be a bellwether for how everyone will be treated eventually.
First they came for the schizophrenics, and I did not speak out…
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.