Justice & Mental Illness

A New Unity Sunday Gathering


We gather together this day as people from many places
With many different ways of understanding the world
With many different ways of being
So much can divide us, but we come together
By the light of this flame, may be come to see one another more clearly
May we come to accept one another more compassionately
May we come to understand



From an Apple Computer advertisement

Here's to the crazy ones.
The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.
The round pegs in the square holes.
The ones who see things differently.
They're not fond of rules.
And they have no respect for the status quo.

You can praise them, disagree with them, quote them,
disbelieve them, glorify or vilify them.
About the only thing you can't do is ignore them.
Because they change things.
They invent. They imagine.
They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire.
They push the human race forward.
Maybe they have to be crazy.

How else can you stare at an empty canvas and see a work of art?
Or sit in silence and hear a song that’s never been written?
Or gaze at a red planet and see a laboratory on wheels?
While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius.

Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world,
are the ones who do.

Message, by Andy Pakula


Today, we are talking about mental illness and justice. In some ways, that seems straightforward. People with mental illnesses ought to be protected from injustice just as we’d expect on the basis of illnesses or disabilities, race, class, sexual orientation, religion, sex, and so on.

But it’s not nearly that simple… 

I watched myself and my words as over the past few weeks as I was thinking about today’s topic, and I noticed just how easy and common it is for me to call something crazy, or mad, or nuts, or even insane. I do it a lot. I suspect most of you do too.

And those words also roll thoughtlessly off our tongues without thinking when we describe people - those we like and those we don’t.

We don’t do it to hurt anyone and we don’t really think about the potential impact.

These are all derogatory words about mental illness though. Imagine if someone used derogatory words about gay or black or Asian or disabled people anywhere near as thoughtlessly. It would not go unnoticed we would not let it pass without a comment - or at least a good deal of discomfort.

So we recognise how very invisible the bias against mental illness can be and how automatic.

And this part of our conversation today is easy, in a way. I imagine that we all agree that people with mental illness should not be insulted - that people with mental illness should not be stigmatised - that - just as with people who difficulty in hearing or seeing or walking - people with cognitive and emotional disabilities should be free from discrimination. I suspect that we will all be a bit more conscious about what we say now - at least for a little while.

But it’s not nearly that simple… 

There is something very odd about our way of responding to mental illness, and let’s get one thing out of the way at this point. Mental illness is extremely common - and it’s not like losing a limb where it’s either there or it’s not there - mental illness represents a tremendous range of types and severities of disorder. You might have a mild depression or one triggered by a traumatic event in your life. You may have some disorder severe enough for you to have a poor grasp on reality.  Mental illness spans this range and more.

And, when we use terms like “crazy” lightly, we actually know we’re talking about ourselves and our loved ones.  I have a privileged view into human lives. I’m a person who people tell what’s really going on. And it is the rarest of people who has never had any degree of mental illness, (which doesn’t mean there aren’t people who won’t admit it - perhaps even to themselves.)

I think that never having had mental illness would be like never having a cold. When you sneeze and cough and feel miserable, you may call it an allergy but, let’s face it, we all get colds from time to time.

How many of you have never had a loved one experience mental illness? 

How many of you have never personally experienced mental illness? 

The official numbers say that one in four people are suffering from a mental illness at any time. I’m sure the real numbers are higher because many go undiagnosed or simply unacknowledged.

And we might not want to acknowledge mental illness because of the way we’ve learned to think about it. Mental illness means crazy - it means weak - it means your life will be horrible and you will be a total failure.

When a pilot deliberately crashed a plane over the Alps a year ago, the tabloids ran headlines like “madman in cockpit” because he had suffered depression. The message is pretty clear - if you have mental illness, the world will think terrible things of you. Best not to admit it.  

And even while mental illness is considered an unalterable cause of danger and failure there is also, paradoxically, a sense that mental illness is not quite real in the way that physical illness is. People with mental illness are often told to try harder, to tough it out, to pull their socks up. And while there are things we can do to help ourselves deal with and sometimes avoid coming down with any particular illness, we don’t tell people with cancer - “get over it - try harder.” We suggest they get the help they need - that they follow through with treatment - but we don’t assume that they are the cause of their own problem.

I know about the denial and the self-criticism that comes with mental illness. I felt like that before I recognised and acknowledged I was suffering with depression and anxiety. If you had a flu or diabetes or  cancer, would you hide it? Would you deny it if you knew it would mean cutting yourself off from treatments that would help?

We are not either mentally ill or healthy - one or another - like an on and off switch. There are no absolutes in mental illness any more than there are in physical illness. Are you 100% healthy or 0% healthy? If you’re alive, the answer is no to both. You can only hit 0% one way, and at that point it doesn’t matter anymore because as long as you’re alive, you’re somewhere between the extremes.

Mental illness is also fraught with a vast array of strange associations. It was once seen as possession by demons or other evil spirits - the treatments included making holes in the skull to let those bad influences out. Later, purging and bloodletting were recommended as ways to treat mental illness which was imagined to result from an imbalance of “humours.” 

And then we know the terrible history of mental asylums where people have been put away for life in inhumane conditions and often so drugged they could barely function at all.

But mental illness is also imagined to be closely connected to genius and creativity. We think of Van Gogh, for example. Think of the advert from Apple Computer that began “here’s to the crazy ones” because they are the only ones who will try to change the world.

Why is our relationship to mental illness so complicated? Why do we not treat mental illness more like physical illness - like diabetes or psoriasis or the flu or a common cold? Why do we not make better treatment available in the NHS or make more provisions available in workplaces or recoil at the pejorative labels that are used so frequently?

To me, one of the most significant answers lies in the importance of relationship and connection. In community and in all of our dealings with people, we are attracted to people we can relate to and understand - people whose thinking and perspectives are most similar to our own.

Mental illness - whether it’s acute or chronic - can block that understanding. This is even true for milder mental illness. We can’t quite understand why a person with depression doesn’t just pull themselves out of it and cheer up - as we would do if we were having a bad day. With some forms of mental illness, a sense of reality can be lost. How can we maintain relationship?
Diabetes doesn’t have these impacts on relationship and understanding. The flu and a cold and eczema and cancer and don’t prevent connection in such a profound way.

It is important to understand all of this about mental illness. It impacts the way mental illness is treated in our society.  It affects the way we, personally, treat people with mental illness. It is important because it affects the way we treat ourselves since many or most of us will have a mental illness at some time in our lives.

It’s also important because mental illness is just one of many factors that can divide us from one another and keep us from understanding and connecting. Anything that causes us to see the world differently - to interact differently - to relate differently - or to think differently creates this same kind of barrier.

If someone believes something very differently from you about the nature of reality, how easy is it to relate? One of you may believe in a God active in human life and the other be certain there is no such presence. How can you relate across such a fundamental difference that leads to understanding life and its events so differently?

Culture divides too - and in some drastic ways we rarely think about. In some cultures, the proper way to deal with conflict is calmly, rationally, and directly. In others, it is to deal with it loudly and emotionally. In still others, the best approach is sweeping it under the carpet. Without any question of what is best or right, how can relationship and connection overcome such a barrier?

The differences between us may include the stories we reference, the way men and women interact, deeply held perspectives about justice, our interaction with authority, and differences as simple as whether one should show up early, on-time, or late to a meeting or gathering.

Mental illness is one of the many factors that keep us from understanding, from compassion, from relationship, and from love.

And the work we need to do in each case is much the same. It’s the work of listening to understand - not listening to convince, persuade, or fix - but the harder work of knowing and accepting another person as they are and then beginning from there.

Justice depends on such understanding. We - as a society - will never be able to treat fairly those we cannot understand.

And peace depends on such understanding. We can never live peacefully and compassionately with those we cannot understand.

We begin with listening. We begin with understanding. 

May it be so.